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Single-use plastic bags have led to harmful impacts on our planet. But are they being unfairly scapegoated?

Are plastic bag bans missing the point?

Single-use plastic bags have led to harmful impacts on our planet. But are they being unfairly scapegoated?

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Plastics. The bane of every environmentalist’s existence. We all know it’s bad for the earth. We all know that we should reduce the use of plastics. But are we going about this right?

Countries around the world have set their sights on the lowly plastic bag, viewing it as low-hanging fruit. Here in Singapore, supermarkets have started charging for a plastic bag. This is to encourage consumers to bring their own reusable bags when grocery shopping because, the argument goes, it’s better for the environment. But is that really the case?

It is true that the accumulation of single-use plastic bags has led to harmful impacts on our planet, affecting our wildlife, nature, and climate. This pollution in turn leads to more health problems and lowers our quality of life. However, did you know that a reusable bag is actually more harmful to the environment than a plastic bag?

Reusable bags, such as your cotton tote bags, require far more materials and resources to make. This means they have a higher carbon footprint in terms of a single-bag production. A 2018 study by the Danish Environmental Protection Agency has noted that one cotton tote bag has to be reused at least 7,100 times to have the same environmental impact as a plastic bag that’s reused and then incinerated. So it’s not true that owning a tote bag automatically makes you more eco-friendly than everyone else.

Does your reusable bag really have a lower carbon footprint?

Reusable products only reduce waste if they are reused enough times to justify their existence. Yet, most people do not use their tote bags sufficiently for them to be sustainable. Tote bags have become a slogan for brands to be environmentally friendly, often being given out at events or sold as merchandise. It’s easy to see why. They are readily customisable and cheap to produce, and are a cute and fun way to spread a message. However, this means that there’s a huge supply of tote bags, which are being used once or twice before they are stashed away. Is this really better for the environment?

Between a plastic bag that was used to carry groceries and then repurposed as a trash bag, and a cotton tote bag that has been touched twice in its lifetime, it is the former that has less carbon footprint. 

Pollution is real. But are tote bags the answer?

Tote bags are replacing plastic bags, even though they aren’t necessarily reducing negative environmental impacts. Ironically, initiatives to reduce waste sometimes can actually lead to more waste. Despite good intentions, it has led to mindless consumerism which worsens the problem.

This isn’t to say that we discourage the use of tote bags, or that we are promoting plastic bags. The bottom line is that we should buy less, buy with intention, and be mindful of our consumption. The tote bags don’t matter, rather it is about how you use them — whether you have 10 different tote bags which you use when you feel like it, or if you have one or two tote bags that you take care of and reuse. Ultimately, it is your actions that make the greatest difference.

Psst! Here's something else you should know:

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