Measuring Environmental Impact
When people talk about bags, the conversation almost always focuses on disposal. However, the impact of bags begins long before disposal.
The best way to measure a product’s environmental impact through a Life Cycle Assessment, or LCA. LCA gives us a full picture of bag impacts through every stage of its existence: birth, life, and death.
Birth: A bag is born when we manufacture it. Impacts in the making of a bag includes energy for processing bags, as well as the raw materials to make them, like petroleum for plastic bags or trees for paper bags. But that’s not all. We need to consider the materials used to make or extract the raw materials, too.
Life: The life of a bag is the useful life of typical service. For bags, this includes how many trips the bag is expected to last, how many items each bag can carry, and the number of bags in usage. Traditional paper and plastic bags are designed for single trips. Canvas bags are designed to be used once a week for a year, replacing one bag a week, or 50 bags a year. Our PP bags are designed for 2-3 years of weekly usage, replacing up to 1000 plastic bags. The more we re-use any one bag, the lower the impact of the bag on our environment.
Death: Here is where we focus on disposal. Disposal issues include: litter, degradation of our waterways, blighting of our landscapes, landfill, and costs for disposal and clean up. Thin disposable plastic bags contribute to all these problems, but even biodegradable bags (including bio-plastic and paper bags) have end-of-life impacts. About 80% of paper bags are not recycled, so they end up as garbage in a landfill, where their impact is similar to other plastic bags. Even recycling has its impacts: transportation of recycled materials can be significant if the recycling materials are sold on the world market for materials. Recycling must also account for the energy and chemicals used to sort and break down post-consumer waste and make it ready for manufacturing again.
Instead of trying to find better disposal, we can save more resources by using fewer bags. By dramatically reducing the number of bags we use, many of our disposal problems would be reduced or eliminated.