The Hidden Costs of Grocery Bags


Bag Fate
After leaving stores in the hands of shoppers, both bags have three possible fates: to be reused, end up as waste or be recycled.

While many of us, at least temporarily, reuse some paper and plastic bags in our homes, the vast majority of them end up as trash in landfills or, in the case of plastic, part of the estimated 4 million bags that litter the globe each year.
Plastic degrades — but not necessarily during our lifetime — in newer landfills designed to prevent material from decomposing and contaminating groundwater. According to Californians Against Waste, a nonprofit environmental grassroots organization based in Sacramento, it takes 20 to 1,000 years for a plastic bag to break down in the environment.

Besides littering our urban areas, plastic bags are carried by wind and ocean currents to once pristine areas of the earth, choking wildlife that mistake them for food. Plastic bag litter has become such an environmental dilemma that some countries like Taiwan, Bangladesh and South Africa now prohibit the flimsy bags. In March 2002, the Republic of Ireland instituted a 15-cent per bag tax paid by consumers at the checkout stands. The tax led to a 90 percent drop in consumption and raised approximately $9.6 million for a “green fund” established to benefit the environment.

As waste, paper is bulkier than plastic, taking up more landfill space. Like plastic, it does not breakdown rapidly. A higher percentage of paper bags are recycled, however, so the number of paper bags that end up in the landfill is not as high as promoters of plastic have estimated. Also, because paper is biodegradable, it may be composted instead of thrown away. 

Recycling is an option for paper and to a lesser extent plastic, but the recycling rate of either type of disposable bags is extremely low. Only 10 to 15 percent of paper bags and 1 to 3 percent of plastic bags are recycled. Paper, however, contains 25 to 40 percent recovered paper fiber, compared to as little as 5 percent recycled content in plastic.

But recycling requires energy for collection and processing and doesn’t address the bigger issue of reducing the use of disposable bags.

A Better Bag
The only true earth-friendly answer is to either reuse the paper and plastic bags we already have or better yet, choose cloth or mesh reusable bags. Changing the minds of millions of shoppers or retailers won’t come overnight, but some stores are helping to nudge shoppers toward reusable bags.

In the Midwest co-ops that Schermerhorn represents, the retailers carry a high quality plastic, full-size grocery bag, which is still free to customers AND reusable. He sees this as taking a “baby step” toward changing the way people shop.

“We think we’re having a positive impact by having it [the reusable plastic bag] available,” says Schermerhorn, who frequently hears from store employees that these bags are indeed being reused. He hopes the trend will catch on and lead all of us to the best choice: cloth bags. Yet less that 1 percent of Americans currently bring their cloth or net bags to the grocery store.

While reusable bags cost more money up front, a high quality reusable grocery bag easily pays for itself during its lifecycle, especially if grocery stores offer credit for supplying your own bag. Each reusable bag has the potential to eliminate an average of 1,000 plastic bags over its lifetime, according to, and perhaps half that many paper bags. Now that’s a lot of trees and petroleum.

While the Davis Food Co-op does not currently offer a plastic reusable grocery bag, cloth, hemp and mesh shopping bags are available in the general merchandise section of the store. [Note that every option is not guaranteed to be in stock every day — with apologies!] If you would like to see the Co-op provide an alternative to paper bags, please feel free to make your voice heard by contacting staff or a board member (see Who’s Who).

Lisa Lucio Gough, a recent UCD graduate, is an editor and freelance science writer.