The Hidden Costs of Grocery Bags

Hi, everyone. As you may be aware, Bloomingfoods is dedicated to minimizing our use of plastic bags as quickly as possible, so we found very interesting this article that just came our way via the Davis Food Co-op . We wanted to share it with our members.

One issue that doesn’t seem to be addressed with much clarity: produce stays fresher in its original plastic bag and/or in a clamshell. What is the ecological trade-off on that?
Stay tuned. Change is afoot.


The Hidden Costs of Grocery Bags

by Lisa Lucio Gough

ImageAs conscientious shoppers we readily embrace the organic mindset and seek out locally grown food to promote a healthy body and a green environment. Yet many of us overlook one small detail that would make our shopping experience even more earth friendly: reusable bags.

As the great debate lingers over which is better — paper or plastic — the actual costs of producing and disposing of either at the expense of the environment suggest that neither is a good choice. “There’s a lot more to it than just paper and plastic,” says Dave Schermerhorn of the National Cooperative Grocer’s Association, referring to the use of raw materials, manufacturing practices and distribution routes, all of which must be considered. Both types of bags require the use of valuable natural resources, produce numerous pollutants during manufacturing, have negative impacts on wildlife — and neither is effectively recycled. To get a better idea of the costs of grocery bags, be they paper or plastic, one must follow their trail from “cradle to grave.”

Consider the familiar plastic bag. These single-use, high-density polyethylene bags are manufactured from petroleum, a nonrenewable resource. It’s estimated that nearly 12 million barrels of oil are required to make the 100 billion [?] plastic shopping bags Americans go through annually. Plastic bags have captured more than 80 percent of the supermarket and convenience store packaging market at a cost of $4 billion to U.S. retailers annually.
Worldwide, between 500 billion and 1 trillion plastic bags are consumed each year, according to, a website launched to educate the public about the true costs associated with the use of disposable bags.

Of course, the trail of paper bags starts in our forests. In 1999, 14 million trees were cut to produce the 10 billion paper grocery bags used by Americans. It’s not surprising that most people prefer paper, believing it is the more responsible choice. Yet, like plastic, paper puts a heavy burden on the environment in terms of production, consumption and disposal.

Manufacturing paper bags requires virgin timber (for greater strength and elasticity), which is processed into heat-treated wood chips. This creates numerous byproducts that pollute waterways and produce greenhouse gases, which are consequently absorbed by fewer trees. In fact, according to the Film and Bag Federation, a trade group within the Society of the Plastics Industry based in Washington, D.C., paper bag production requires more energy, generates more solid waste, produces more atmospheric emissions and releases more waterborne wastes compared to plastic grocery bags.

Advocates of paper bags point out that trees are a renewable resource, but it takes years to replace the old, biologically rich forests that are harvested to make them.


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.