Tote Bag Needs 21 Uses to Be More Sustainable Than Plastic, Study Finds

By: Dave Roos
The Chinese government announced a nationwide ban on stores distributing free ultra-thin plastic bags starting June 1, 2008. Chinese people had been using 3 billion plastic bags each day. China Photos/Getty Images
The Chinese government announced a nationwide ban on stores distributing free ultra-thin plastic bags starting June 1, 2008. Chinese people had been using 3 billion plastic bags each day. China Photos/Getty Images

On Election Day 2016, famously eco-conscious Californians will be asked to make an even more difficult decision than Donald or Hillary. Is it "bag or no bag?" Thanks to a ballot referendum sponsored by the American Progressive Bag Alliance (formerly the American Plastic Bag Alliance), California voters will have a chance to repeal the state's all-out ban on plastic grocery bags.

California's plastic bag ban was passed in 2014, but implementation has been delayed until after the fall vote. Mark Daniels, chairman of the APBA, says Proposition 67 all about consumer choice and consumer education.


"We're trying to educate consumers about the true environmental impact of plastic retail bags, not the mythology that environmental community has put out there as they've made this their flagship issue," Daniels says.

Daniels, who is also senior vice president of sustainability at plastics manufacturer Novolex, believes that plastic grocery bags have been unfairly maligned as a pervasive environmental toxin. To counter the widespread belief that plastic bags contribute to global warming, choke sewage systems and poison wildlife, the plastics industry has funded scientific studies on the environmental impact of plastic grocery bags versus paper and reusable bags.

In 2012, Daniels' company awarded $179,864 to researchers at Clemson University to conduct an in-depth life-cycle analysis (LCA) of the environmental costs of plastic bags versus other alternatives. The results were conclusive: plastic grocery bags were by far the most environmentally friendly choice at the checkout counter.

How so? The Clemson report calculated that canvas tote bags would need to be reused at least 21.5 times before their environmental impact equaled that of plastic grocery bags. That's because most plastic grocery bags are made in the United States from byproducts of natural gas. The most common reusable bags — the $1 totes known in the industry as non-woven polypropylene (NWPP) — are made in Asia and require more energy to produce and ship.

But don't most people use their reusable bags more than 21 times? That's the real "gotcha" moment of the Clemson report. According to a national survey, just 41 percent of Americans who shop with these tote bags reused them at least 21.5 times. (Most people reused them 14. 6 times.) Paper bags, which are seldom reused and require serious energy to produce and recycle, were considered the least environmentally friendly of the three options by the report.

Andy Keller isn't buying it. Keller is the president and inventor of ChicoBag, a reusable bag company based in Chico, California. Keller's bags aren't the cheap NWPP bags studied by Clemson. ChicoBags are woven from either 100 percent recycled plastic or virgin polyester, are lightweight and compact, rolling up into a tiny pouch designed to fit into your pocket or purse. This is one way to encourage reuse — people don't have to remember to carry them, unlike traditional canvas totes. (The retail cost is $6.99 per bag.)

Plastic Floating Islands?

Keller doesn't trust any studies funded by the plastics industry, and he really doesn't trust the reusable bag numbers at the heart of the Clemson study. The national survey of reusable bag users was conducted by Edelman Berland, the market research wing of the global public relations firm Edelman, which happens to represent the American Progressive Bag Alliance.

"The plastics industry has spent millions and millions of dollars in California to overturn our bag ban," Keller says. "If they spent a fraction of that on actually addressing the environmental issues that people have brought up with their product, and being good corporate citizens, they wouldn't have all these communities trying to ban plastic bags."

For his part, Daniels claims that the so-called "environmental issues" linked to plastic grocery bags — like windblown litter and oceanic "garbage patches" — are exaggerated or patently false.

"On average, plastic grocery bags are six-tenths of 1 percent of litter. We would love it to be nothing," says Daniels. "We don't want to see a plastic retail bag in any environment, whether it's roadside or whether it's in a marine environment. But it's been proven by Oregon State University and the EPA that there is no plastic trash island out in the ocean."

Again, Keller disagrees. He has personally visited two of the five subtropical gyres commonly known as garbage patches. True, they're not floating islands of solid debris, but rather a smoggy soup of tiny plastic particles and detritus. The National Oceanic Service reports that fish and other marine wildlife eat these "microplastics," which can damage the digestive tract and potentially poison them with toxic pollutants such as PCBs.  

"I've seen the results," Keller says. "I've seen the remains of plastic bags. I have firsthand experience seeing what plastics are doing to this earth. I would ask Mark Daniels, has he been out there?"


Reuse versus Recycle

Daniels simply points to the science, which he adamantly denies is biased or influenced in any way by the plastics industry. He says that his company and his industry are following the EPA hierarchy: reduce, reuse, recycle.

Keller's company ChicoBag is a certified B Corporation, a global designation for a sustainable business, and has won the "Best for the World Environment" award three years in a row. Keller launched his reusable bag business in 2004 after visiting a landfill and seeing massive amounts of windblown plastic bags floating off of the garbage heap and back into the environment. He believes the California ban, if upheld by voters, will make more people question their disposable lifestyle.


"Why are we using such a wonderful material to make things that are deigned to be thrown away?" asks Keller. "It's time to change the question from 'paper or plastic?' to 'do you need a bag?'"

A 2011 study done by the U.K. government's Environment Agency, concluded that NWPP bags would have to be reused 11 times to have a lower potential on global warming than plastic bags that were not reused. But whatever type of bag is used, the report added, the key is to reuse it as much as possible, if not for other shopping, then as a garbage bin liner. This has greater environmental benefits that recycling the bag.

Update: California voters upheld the ban on plastic bags 52 to 48 percent.