Green Guru: Fabric or Plastic?

The most eco-friendly options for grocery bags and trash can liners.

If people who use fabric shopping bags end up buying plastic trash liners, are they still helping the environment?

Kira Freed, Tucson, AZ


Turns out, the environment comes out ahead in this scenario. “Research in Australia has estimated that even if consumers do have to purchase bin liners, the reduction in the number of single-use plastic shopping bags consumed will far outweigh the increase in the number of bin liners purchased,” Helen Lewis, an adjunct professor with the Centre for Design at Australia’s RMIT University, wrote in an email.  Lewis has worked for more than 20 years on reducing the environmental impacts of production and consumption.

Plastic shopping bags have become ubiquitous because they’re strong, cheap, and impervious. The downside is that they’re often used only once, aren’t recycled, and are harmful to wildlife. “There have been several instances where a whale has washed up on the beach, and when they do a necropsy, they find more than one plastic bag,” says Marieta Francis, executive director of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, a group that does studies on the accumulation of plastic in the world’s oceans. They also end up in the digestive systems of fish, birds, manatees, and turtles that mistake the plastic for jellyfish. In 2010 alone, plastic bags accounted for 10 percent of trash collected during the International Coastal Cleanup, a global volunteer effort. Small wonder that a number of cities, including San Francisco, Seattle, and Mexico City, and regions like the Northern Territory of Australia have either issued bans or taxes.

So bring your own bags to the grocery store. And instead of buying plastic liners for your trash can, try separating your food and liquid wastes for composting. 

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