Come On, People. Quit Maligning the Plastic Grocery Bag!

As a Southern California native, I took great interest in the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors decision to save the world by passing an ordinance that bans plastic shopping bags at grocery stores, pharmacies and convenience stores.

The ordinance also mandates that these same stores must impose a ten cent charge for each recyclable paper bag they give their customers.  I assume the ten cent charge for each recyclable paper bag will go directly to the Los Angeles County coffers, which will be used to help pay for all those gas-guzzling maintenance vehicles I see on the streets and highways.   Heh.

Meanwhile, affected families that average twenty paper bags of groceries per month will now end up paying $24 more per year.  And while that may not seem like a lot of money to you or me, I can assure you it means a lot to people on limited or fixed incomes.

Why do plastic shopping bags continue to get such a bad rap?  Why is it still chic to pillory them?  Frankly, I’m getting a bit tired it.

I am quite certain many people would be shocked to know that plastic grocery bags are arguably a better environmental choice than paper.

In fact, the Wall Street Journal observed that the choice between paper and plastic comes down to which environmental issue you think deserves the most attention.

You’d be right to argue that paper bags produce less litter, but plastic bags have their benefits too.  Oh yes, Virginia, they most certainly do.

Don’t believe me?  Well, the Wall Street Journal notes that plastic bags require significantly less energy and water to make.   Not only that, but they also produce less greenhouse-gas emissions.

I’m certainly not ashamed to admit that I love using plastic shopping bags to carry my groceries.  After all, they’re durable, lightweight, moisture resistant, and reusable.

Perhaps my favorite thing about the humble plastic bag is that they make toting groceries such a breeze.  For instance, I can carry six or eight plastic bags full of groceries in two hands, which minimizes the number of trips I have to make when I get home from the car to the house.   Try doing that with paper bags.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “But, Len, if you really cared about the environment you’d use an eco-friendly reusable bag.”

Really?  Well, they have their problems too.

For example, many inexpensive store brand reusable bags aren’t very durable, hold minimal grocery loads, and are anything but eco-friendly.

Even worse, Britain’s Daily Mail reported this summer that tests on reusable “eco-friendly” shopping bags revealed traces of the deadly E. coli bacterium on fully half of those sampled.

If that isn’t enough, just this week the New York Times disclosed that many reusable bags imported from China were recently found to contain potentially unsafe levels of lead.

With all that in mind, can somebody please tell me again why the humble plastic shopping bag is still maligned by so many people?

As for me, when it comes to paper, plastic or eco-friendly reusable bags, I’ll proudly choose plastic every time.

So put that in your pipe, Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.  Just don’t smoke it; we’ve got enough air pollution here in Southern California already.

35 comments to Come On, People. Quit Maligning the Plastic Grocery Bag!

  • Olivia

    In our area we’re required to bag our garbage in plastic bags. Plastic grocery bags are a perfect fit for small bathroom trash cans. So I gather enough plastic bags to keep us supplied. Why buy them? How do they handle that where you are?

    I avoid the cheapo store recyleable bags. For most trips I use thrift-store-purchased canvas ones ($1@), and an insulated bag my sister gave me. The canvas bags are washable, sturdier than paper or plastic, flat bottomed, and bleachable. The thermal one can be wiped down.

    This combination method works well for us.

  • I too have wondered why paper is preferred over plastic environmentally. I almost always get plastic, except I like to get some paper bags to use for recycling newspapers and such at the end of the week.

    Since we are family of 5, I do have about 1000 spare plastic bags in my pantry at any one time. I also use them to line small garbage cans and throw out things that have gotten kinda scary in the fridge. I recycle the extras at the grocery store when I remember to put them in my car.

    Reusing those cheap bags has kind of scared me. I bought a few at a store (with the store logo on it) and the smell from the new bags was atrocious. I also wonder about people that bring meat and such home in those bags- the last thing I want is a bag soaked with meat juices.

    In essence, I am with you Len!

  • Pamela

    Great post, Len! We are definitely on the same page here. Plastic bags are the better choice here.

    Paper bags take up HUGE amounts of space in public landfills and by-products of their production spews a significant amount of pollution into our waterways.

    Like Olivia, I use grocery store plastic bags in my bathroom trash cans. They also make great liners when you are looking to protect something from getting wet.

  • Bella

    I’ve always thought those eco-friendly bags were kind of gross for carrying things like chicken and other raw meats. Sometimes those packages leak you know. Environmentally, if I have to wash in the washing machine with hot water all the time, are they really that much better? The other problem with them is they don’t hold as many groceries as I’d like them to.

  • SuzieQ

    Go vegetarian! Then you won’t have any meat juices in your bags AND your be even more environmentally friendly, as well as being healthier and saving animals from the cruelty of the U.S. meat industry.

    That aside, I use real canvas bags and a ‘cool’ bag and they are all plenty big enough. I’ve never bought a canvas bag as I’ve received them free from shows and events I’ve attended. Sometimes I’ve been given thinner canvas-like bags that have gotten worn and ripped. But the real canvas bags are the way to go. I’ve put them in the washing machine to clean them.

  • I think Los Angeles County should be more concerned with their underwater budget than paper or plastic bags. Of course, that’s probably why they are looking for new revenue by taxing bags.

    I bought one of the canvas bags from Trader Joes and it’s awesome. I wish I had of bought four or five, because now they only have the cheaper kind. I bought one of those as well and I haven’t had any problems with smells. I hope it isn’t one of the new leaded bags. :-)

  • While I use the cloth/eco friendly bags when I shop, I dont appreciate a “board of supervisors” telling me which bag choice I can or can not make. EACH type of bag comes with some sort of tradeoff, just like every other choice being made in life. Live with them and don’t force people to make your choice.

    While it may not be the best looking bag, you could probably turn an old pair of jeans into a reusable bag rather easily.

  • Misty

    I don’t really understand the problem. You shouldn’t be using paper /or/ plastic.

    First of all, only idiots buy the things that are advertised as “reuseable shopping bags.” They’ve been making the same thing for years for people to carry things in, and the ones that are not advertised as “shopping bags” are cheaper (when you take into account how much longer they last), more durable, and generally of better design. I have about 6 that I use to carry groceries in as a single person, and I’ve never had a problem. None of them were new when I started using them, so there’s the added benefit of reusing something that would have otherwise been thrown away.

    As for the e. coli thing, that’s the dumbest “problem” I’ve heard of yet. That’s like saying you should buy disposable clothes because your clothes start to stink after a few wears. Would you refuse to wash your clothes because it’s not ‘eco-friendly’ to use the washing machine? You do have to wash things that you want to repeatedly reuse, people.

  • I so hope they don’t do that here…I love my plastic bags. We reuse them for so much! Dogs issues, scraps while we cook in the kitchen, mini trash can liners, easy clean-up for spills, icky food removal from the fridge, and as lunch sacks for work!

  • I mostly use cloth bags. My bags average 8 years old, so that’s pretty economical. I’m not worried about E Coli because a) I don’t lick my bags, b) I don’t get meat from factory farms which is where 99.99% of the food poisoning comes from. The E Coli on bags is really an indictment of disgusting farming practices rather than reusable bags.

    I do use plastic bags to keep things like raw meat from leaking on my bag. I attempt to reuse plastic bags but most of them are so thin that I barely get 1 use out of them.

    This seems like another reason for you to move to TX where we have a balanced budget and you can choose whatever bag you want. ;)

  • @Olivia: We too are asked to bag our trash in plastic bags. We use plastic grocery bags for our bathroom trash can liners too. I also use them for lots of other uses. We do have some really nice canvas bags but we don’t use them for groceries.
    @Everyday: Glad to know you’ve got my back, Kris! :-)
    @Pamela: Regarding landfills, I don’t subscribe to the argument that we have a shortage of land to bury our trash. There is plenty of land. But you’re right, numbers from studies that I’ve seen say plastic bags make up only about 3 percent of the total space in a landfill.
    @Bela: It all comes down to how the accounting is done, but it seems to me that when comparing paper or plastic to washing reusable bags, then it probably ends up being, if you’ll excuse the expression, a wash.
    @SuzieQ: I’ve got cheap canvas bags that don’t hold a lot of stuff. You make a good point about not eating meat, but the vegetarian gig is my sister’s. :-) LOL
    @Bret: I think I need to find some of these better canvas bags.
    @Jeff: I, too, don’t like government telling me things like what kind of bags I need to use to carry my groceries, or what kind of light bulbs I put in my house. Government was never meant to be this intrusive.
    @Misty: The main point was not to denigrate reusable bags so much as it was to question why we are banning plastic bags in the first place. I’m just not convinced washing these reusable bags every week is more environmentally friendly than using disposable plastic bags. Thanks for the comments though. You make good points in defense of reusable bags.
    @BIFS: Your best defense is to elect politicians who are against government intrusion into our everyday decisions like what kind of shopping bags we use!
    @Jennifer: Genius! I know I’ll stop licking reusable grocery bags from now on. Why didn’t I think of that? ;-) By the way, I love love love Texas!

  • Jo

    Like all environmental choices, there are pros and cons to plastic vs paper vs reusable bags. So often the full picture is not taken into consideration, such as the electricity to heat water to wash recyclable cans or bottles or bags, the pollution produced by that washing, the water used for that washing, etc.

    I do like the suggestion to go vegan/vegetarian because of the huge positives – no E coli germs on your bags, no cruelty to animals, no greenhouse gases produced by animals, higher output of food production from growing crops versus grazing meat-producing animals on the same amount of land.

    Not licking grocery bags, while at first glance an excellent idea, ignores the E coli that could get transferred to foods you eat raw or “as is”, like fruits, lettuce, or bread. Yes, you can wash fruits or lettuce, but will everyone in your home remember to, and do so thoroughly?

  • @Jo I hope everyone washes the produce as well. E coli has made people sick from getting on vegetables. There was a big spinach recall a few years ago.

  • Fiona Lam

    I’m with Misty. If both paper and plastic aren’t environmentally friendly options, take reusable canvas/fabric bags. You’ve put up some article links about the environmental costs and hazards of using reusable, but honestly I have a hard time believing it all. I’ve never had any problems with reusable bags in terms of size, cleanliness, bacteria etc. And the one-time cost of producing 1 reusable bag would seem far less than the cost of producing plastic bags. I mean, 1 reusable bag, for me, has stopped me from picking up 150+ plastic bags each year.

    The ban is I suppose is to halt the distribution/use of plastic bags. However, I hope that they will couple it with education programs/notices about the alternatives to plastic bags – such as reusable canvas bags.

  • SlaveToMyLenders

    I’ve only found your blog today and I’ve already added it to the PF blogs that I follow.

    Regarding bags — I live in the UK where paper bags are not available in grocery stores (you can usually get small paper bags when buying veg/fruit at the market, though). When I moved here from Texas 10 years ago, I brought my Whole Foods cloth bags with me. In the early years, the supermarket checkers looked at me funny when I used my own bags. Fortunately, in the past 5 years it’s become much more common. Now some supermarkets give a rebate for ever cloth bag that you use, but don’t charge for plastic bags.

    I have lots more bags now that I used to (I shop for more people!) but I still have my 3 WF bags that I ought in the mid 1990′s. They hold so much that I have to be careful not to over-fill them unless my husband is with me, otherwise I can’t lift them easily.

    I wash my bags every couple of months, or when they seem to be getting dirty. Meats are quite well wrapped here so it’s unusual to have any liquids dripping from them.

    And finally, bags in this country have holes in the bottom (I assume to prevent suffocation in case a child puts it over their head???) so they’re not as useful as they could be for garbage bags. I do use plastic bags for scooping doggie doo and for taking things to other people, but that’s about it.

  • Either the LA County Board of Supervisors doesn’t have pet cats or they don’t clean their cats’ litter boxes.

  • Seems like a fair ask to me. Makes people use reusable bags. Win / win.

  • I agree, we reuse all of our plastic bag! They are great liners for trash cans, cat and dog crap, muddy shoes from soccer (kept in the car for such emergencies), etc.

    I think they are great if you reuse them…

  • @Jo: Good points. Thanks for the comments!
    @Fiona: I have no problem with folks using reusables. I’m all for freedom of choice. Your call for education is a good one but, then again, who needs education when our government is telling us what kind of bags we can and cannot use anyway? Just my two cents. :-)
    @Joe: Good point. I guess they probably don’t have dogs either!
    @MR: They are very versatile – and they’re reusable too.

  • No one’s addressed the question of how many plastic bags you can create from one felled tree.

    I think all bags are a form of capitalist propaganda. Our ancient forebears had neither bag-quality paper, nor plastic, yet they managed. Maybe if you’re buying more groceries than you can carry in the natural cradle your arms form against your chest, you’re contributing to the problem of consumerism and ultimately damaging our planet.

  • Maybe… but I think a better explanation is that I just don’t like making six trips to the grocery store when I could do it in one.

  • I think the government is going after revenue by trying to address externalities. The external costs of plastic or paper bags aren’t properly captured, so by charging for them they’re trying to address the costs.

    The other thing is if you get a good set of canvas bags you can carry as much as those six dinky plastic bags, have a much better handle, and still not use bags. Once you get into the habit its really easy.

    Oh and I still collect those plastic bags, sometimes I forget my bags, or buy more than I can put in em…

  • I’ve used sturdy canvas bags for years and do not feel the need to use plastic bags. But, hey, that’s my choice. I do get a bit irked that govt. mandates things even when I agree with it. It will lead to more people deliberately going against it just to spite the govt. But back to my first point, it’s a small choice to use a canvas bag but I feel we can all collectively make small choices that are insurance for our earth’s future.

  • Steve

    It’s their way to get more money from you and wrap it in a nice, little eco-friendly message. After all, they think that the average Joe is unsophisticated and stupid. If they really cared about the environment, then why not simply require that every thing, bags, packaging, etc, simply be recyclable, or we will tax the use of it. I like the little bags because I put my garbage in it and save on the costs of garbage disposal. Oh by the way, in 10 to 20 years, that garbage in the refuse in the dump can be used to generate methane and power my car.

  • @Nicholas: Thanks for your comments! After reading comments here and a couple emails I received on this, I’m going to have to take another look at canvas bags. That being said, the problem I have with your suggestion that gov’t is trying to address external costs is that I guarantee you that the money they collect will do nothing of the sort. Instead the fee will only be used to support the government bureaucracy. :-)
    @Jerry: I’m with you, it’s all about freedom of choice. Like I said, folks like you commenting on the favorable aspects of canvas bags is doing more to persuade me than government bans.
    @Steve: I agree. This is more about generating revenue for the bloated LA County government than about the environment.

  • I love it! I usually use re-usable, but sometimes deliberately go for plastic. We use them for our cat litter and as our trash bags, so I don’t feel like we “waste” them.

    And you are so right about htem being a breeze for carrying groceries. Unless you get those paper ones with handles, paper is ridiculously difficult to carry more than one at a time.

  • One more use for plastic shopping bags: keeping your side mirrors ice-free in case of freezing rain or precipitation. Keep a couple in the car, along with several large rubber bands. If you have to park your car in the open during the day for an extended period (like in a company parking lot), wrap the bags around your mirrors, secure w/ the rubber bands, and in the afternoon, take them off along with ice build-up.

  • To stop hurting the environment, I think people should buy things such as “shopper bags” to help out. First, cloth bags are stronger than harmful plastic bags. They can only carry so much weight. Cloth bags on the other hand can carry several times more weight than plastic bags. This comes in real handy when you have to climb up stairs or walk ways with your groceries.

  • [...] Penzo dot Com with Come On, People.  Quit Maligning the Plastic Grocery Bag!  I love reusing my plastic grocery bags and really hope they don’t force me to switch to [...]

  • [...] Len Penzo brings up some points about plastic bags and wants everyone to stop hating them. He also shares some creepy thoughts on the reusable cloth bags. (I admit, I love the ease of carrying plastic bags, but enjoy the functionality of the paper bag to put all my recycled paper in.) [...]

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