I am delighted to have a guest blogger – Michelle Vogel – who is an avid blogger herself and has been so for many years (http://mishvoinmotion.com).
In 2012, Michelle started a student organisation called Bag the Bag UGA aimed at reducing the use of single-use plastic grocery bags in her university community. The organisations is still going strong thanks to Michelle’s hard work. However Michelle has ‘fallen off the wagon’ herself when it comes to using plastic bags. This just goes to show the complexities of behaviour change and the dynamic nature of our actions. Here are some thoughts and words of wisdom from Michelle. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did. Rowena
My second-story window looks out onto a one-way street in Butcher’s Hill, a residential area of Baltimore City characterized by skinny row house after row house nestled up next to each other. A white, crinkly plastic bag is stuck in a bare, wintery tree and I watch it rustle in the wind outside my window.
It’s been there for days.
At the start of this year, I joined many of you in pledging to reduce my plastic consumption. I pledged to get back in the reusable bag habit and quit single-use plastic bags.
It’s something I used to really care about. You see, I’m a former anti-plastic bag activist and I have fallen way, way off the wagon.
A Complex Issue
In 2012, I started a student organization called Bag the Bag UGA aimed at reducing the use of single-use plastic grocery bags in my community. I kept at it for about 6 months, dutifully bringing my reusable grocery bags to the store every shopping trip and even converting a few friends and family along the way to the anti-single-use-plastic bag cause. I took it so far, that I remember needing a plastic bag to use as a bin liner in my garbage can and not having a single one in the house. I had to go to the store and get plastic bags.
The thing about becoming an expert in single-use plastic bags is that I learned that plastic bags are not as offensive to the environment as we tend to think they are. With this realization, my once-dogmatic commitment to using only reusable grocery bags was shaken. Eventually, my days of no plastic bags retreated into the past and I resumed old habits.
The complexity of the plastic bag issue comes to light when we consider alternative bag options:
Paper bags as an alternative make no sense. They can actually be worse for the environment than their plastic counterparts. If you look at the entire lifecycle of the product, from production to distribution to consumption, paper bags lose.
Manufacturing paper bags consumes an enormous amount of water and chemicals, some say three times as much as required to produce single-use plastic bags. Paper bags are much heavier, thus there is more fuel needed for transport than for plastic bags. Lastly, while paper bags can be recycled with perhaps more ease than plastic bags (which you have to round up and bring in to a qualifying store drop), plastic bags are simply more durable and thus often reused in the home as trash bags, lunch boxes, or dog-poop bags while paper bags definitely are not.
Okay so what about reusable grocery bags? They sound like an excellent alternative. Well, most reusable bags are also made from plastic, just a different kind. Plastic and non-plastic reusable bags ultimately require more resources to create/distribute than single-use plastic. You have to actually reuse your bag X number of times to make it “worth it”. That “X” varies by the material of the reusable bag and the amount of times you reuse your single-use plastic bag.
According to a UK Study, you have to use a polypropylene reusable bag 11 times to make up for its environmental impact when compared to using a single-use plastic (aka HDPE in the table below) bag one time. You have to reuse a cotton tote bag 393 (!!) times to equal the environmental impact of reusing a single plastic bag just three times.
[Table title, taken from the report:] The amount of primary use required to take reusable bags below the global warming potential of HDPE bags with and without secondary reuse. Source.
So if you are one of those people who has purchased a bunch of reusable grocery bags with every intention of bringing them with you to the grocery store, but you end up leaving them at home or in the car most times instead, those reusable bags are actually worse for the environment than your single-use plastic bag habit.
The moral of the story is: whatever bag you are using, make sure you reuse it as many times as possible and then recycle it.
My Pledge Progress
I pledged to get back on the wagon that I fell off of: to go back to using reusable bags exclusively like I did in my Bag the Bag days.
But considering that I reuse plastic bags all the time, I’ve decided to adjust my pledge: I pledge to reuse any bag that I end up using – single-use plastic or not – as many times as possible, and then recycle it.
In the end, I think the real value of a challenge like this is in researching the resources that go into the lifecycle of the products we use, and overall educating ourselves about how we can be more responsible consumers.