How Green Are Your Grocery Bags?
You feel pretty good about yourself toting those green woven bags back and forth to the supermarket. But how much — and what — do they really save? And what's wrong with the old plastic and paper kinds?
"It's a conundrum," explains Kevin Ott from the Society of the Plastics Industry, based in Washington, D.C. "We don't live in a perfect world. There is a cost to the environment, regardless of which bag is used. To understand which bag is the greenest, we need to look at the life cycle analysis of each bag."
That "life-cycle analysis" follows each bag from raw material through production and distribution and to the consumer's hands. It also takes into account whether it's reused, recycled or thrown in the garbage.
Reusable fabric bags are most commonly made from cotton, but the cotton-farming process is extremely fossil-fuel-intensive because of the machinery involved.
According to the Pesticide Action Network of North America (PANNA) conventionally grown cotton uses more insecticides than any other single crop. Worldwide, cotton growers use more than 10 percent of the world's pesticides and nearly 25 percent of the world's insecticides.
Cotton is also responsible for 25 percent of all chemical pesticides — insecticides, fungicides and herbicides — used on American crops. Chemical fertilizers are used to enrich the soil.
Well, then, what about organic cotton? Those crops generally yield less usable fiber, which means an organic farmer needs more land to make a profit.
Most of the cotton grocery bags are woven outside the U.S. where labor is less costly, but that increases the use of fossil fuels in getting them from the factory to these shores.
So far, the life-cycle analysis of reusable cloth bags doesn't sound too green.
The process for making paper bags is also far from ideal. Huge machines log, haul and pulp trees. The entire paper-making process is heavily dependent on chemicals, electricity and fossil fuels.