Do Paper and Cotton Bags Actually Help the Environment?

Susan Clark discusses new plastic bag ban with Spectrum news.

BY JEANNIE MCBRIDE republished from SpectrumNews

Release date: February 7, 2020

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There’s no doubt paper is perceived as the more environmentally friendly choice over plastic.

"Paper, it’s from a renewable resource. It comes from trees, compared to plastic bags which are made from bi-products of oil refining,” said Susan Clark, director of Sustainable Urban Environments Initiative at the University at Buffalo.

Paper is biodegradable. Plastic is not.

Clark says paper bags actually produce more greenhouse gas emissions, which contribute to climate change.

"Paper bags take more energy to produce, more energy to make pulp into paper than it does oil into plastic. It takes more water as well for paper bags," she explained.

And paper bags also have an impact on landfills.

"Many landfills are designed so that air, water, and oxygen can't get in. They are trying to prevent pollution and water contamination, so nothing really biodegrades in a landfill," Clark said.

Some experts say the biggest issue with plastic bags is that they weren't disposed of properly.

The EPA found in 2017 that Americans used more than 4.14 million tons of plastic bags, and only 9 percent of it was recycled.

“I think it's really a visual way of seeing trash and all these stories about finding plastic in the stomachs of whales and things," said Clark.

According to a study in Britain, cotton bags need to be reused over 131 times to ensure environmental impact is reduced. Why? Because of how cotton is produced.

"Generally, it’s produced in a really industrial way: with a lot of chemicals, pesticides, and fertilizer, along with a lot of water," she said.

Plus, you need to make sure you clean reusable bags. A University of Arizona study found E.coli and other dangerous bacteria in the majority of cotton bags tested.

"If you're not bagging your meat separately, you're not cleaning those bags routinely. You're gonna find a lot of stuff in there that's not great," explained Clark.

As for banning plastic bags, Clark says it’s a small step in the right direction.

Paper and reusable bags are fine, but she advises to think outside of the box — or bag — when it comes to shopping.

global goals.

Sustainable Development Goals:

12. Responsible Production and Consumption: Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns

13. Climate action: Taking steps to combat climate change and its impacts 

15. Life on land: Managing forests and terrestrial ecosystems, while combating desertification, land degradation and biodiversity loss in a sustainable way