Brian Kotowski: Plastic bags, silly walks

While following the efforts to ban plastic bags in Steamboat, I am reminded of Monty Python’s epic “Ministry Of Silly Walks” sketch — yet another ludicrous bureaucratic initiative writ large.

The prevailing and accepted fiction is that paper bags are more eco-freindly because they are derived from a renewable resource and are biodegradable and recyclable. Not true, if one cares to look at it honestly.

The following data are compiled from relevant studies on the issue commissioned by the U.S., Danish and Scottish governments, along with research conducted by Bob Lilienfeld’s ULS organization. ULS stands for “Use Less Stuff.” Mr. Lilienfeld is a longtime advocate for source reduction whose work has been widely cited by outlets ranging from the Wall Street Journal to the New York Times. He is often the go-to “sustainability guy” at CNN, Fox, MSNBC and NPR.

Some highlights from the ULS report “Revised Analysis of Life Cycle Assessment Relating to Grocery Bags”, which draws from the aforementioned government studies:

• The manufacture of plastic bags consumes 71 percent less energy than their paper counterparts and generates one-fifth the solid waste.

• After four or more uses, reusable plastic bags are superior to all types of disposable bags, across all significant environmental indicators.

• Plastic bags generate 39 percent less greenhouse gas than uncomposted paper bags and 69 percent less than composted ones.

• Plastic bags generate 4,565 tonnes of CO2 equivalents per 150 million bags. Tonnage for composted paper bags is 7,621 and 14,588 for uncomposted ones.

The report’s conclusion: “Legislation designed to reduce environmental impacts and litter by outlawing grocery bags, based on the material from which they are produced, will not deliver the intended results. While some litter reduction might take place, it would be outweighed by the disadvantages that would subsequently occur (increased solid waste and greenhouse gas emissions). Ironically, reducing the use of traditional plastic bags would not even reduce the reliance on fossil fuels, as paper and biodegradable plastic bags consume at least as much non-renewable energy during their full lifecycle.”

The reality is that plastic shopping bags outperform paper bags by an order of magnitude, based on almost any environmental metric you care to apply.

Sadly, once an activist’s collective virtue has been triggered, self-righteous sermonizing may win the day. Common sense will be dumped at the landfill, to marinate in the additional waste and greenhouse gas emissions guaranteed by those same activists and their unrelenting piety.

Brian Kotowski


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