Plastic, paper or cotton bag. What’s best?

PLASTIC: has a poor reputation because when it is littered, it is bad for wildlife [1], and degrades very slowly [2]. However, if we improve our reuse, recycling, and disposal of plastic [17], then plastic seems like a great option for many things due to its low carbon footprint [3].

PAPER: The carbon footprint of a paper bag is similar to, or greater than, that of a plastic bag [3,7]. However, since a paper bag is more likely to break, it will usually be re-used fewer times than a plastic bag [3].

COTTON: has a reputation as a great alternative to plastic [6]. Sadly, this idea is just a result of clever marketing [5]. Growing cotton requires vast quantities of water: ~2700 liters to make a t-shirt [9]. This causes huge water shortages, such as the drying of the 4th biggest lake in the world (the Aral Sea), which is now 10% of its original size [10]. Much of the lake was replaced by desert, causing pesticide-laden dust storms that cause throat cancer – this area has the highest rates of this disease in the world [9]. Organic cotton is made without using pesticides [3]. This is good for the farmers [11,12], but means the crop grows slower and needs more land, worsening the overall environmental impact [3,13]. Excluding littered plastic, the total environmental impact of a cotton bag is ~7100x worse than a thin plastic bag; organic cotton is ~20,000x worse [3]!

POLYESTER: needs much less water than cotton to be made [14]. It can be made from recycled plastics, and can itself be recycled, so should in theory should not require much new oil to be extracted [14]. However, polyester has a higher carbon footprint than cotton [15]. Plus, every time you wash it, microplastics are released into the water system, eventually polluting the ocean [14,18]. And, it cannot be coloured with natural dyes, meaning water pollution is worse [14].

So, it’s a complicated picture! In the end, the best way to save resources and the environmental harm caused in production, is to buy fewer things or to get them second-hand [16]. We will write about further alternatives like hemp in the future.

References

[1] https://theconversation.com/eight-million-tonnes-of-plastic-are-going-into-the-ocean-each-year-37521

[2] https://science.howstuffworks.com/science-vs-myth/everyday-myths/how-long-does-it-take-for-plastics-to-biodegrade.htm

[3] https://www2.mst.dk/Udgiv/publications/2018/02/978-87-93614-73-4.pdf

[4] https://www.worldwildlife.org/industries/cotton

[5] http://www.thefashionlaw.com/learn/greenwashing

[6] https://www.theloop.ca/cotton-totes-might-be-even-worse-for-the-environment-than-plastic-bags/

[7] http://www.niassembly.gov.uk/globalassets/documents/raise/publications/2011/environment/3611.pdf

[8] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-47027792

[9] https://www.theworldcounts.com/counters/cotton_environmental_impacts/environmental_issues_with_cotton

[10] https://www.bbc.com/news/resources/idt-a0c4856e-1019-4937-96fd-8714d70a48f7

[11] https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/renewable-agriculture-and-food-systems/article/potential-and-limitations-of-organic-and-fair-trade-cotton-for-improving-livelihoods-of-smallholders-evidence-from-central-asia/586921501E1FB1838C826470EA96F853

[12] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9498903

[13] https://ourworldindata.org/is-organic-agriculture-better-for-the-environment

[14] http://www.tortoiseandladygrey.com/2016/08/29/environmental-impacts-polyester/

[15] https://www.wri.org/blog/2017/07/apparel-industrys-environmental-impact-6-graphics

[16] https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11367-010-0197-y

[17] https://www.centerforecotechnology.org/plastic-pollution/

[18] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0025326X16307639

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