Every environmentalist, and most people, accept that waste is a bad thing. The volume of plastic bags that are given away in shops has led to an explosion in waste that is contributing to a small waste island currently floating about the Pacific.

Concerns about this have grown to the point where several cities, and even countries, have either banned or put a charge on the giving away of plastic bags… most recently England (albeit somewhat a disaster).

In Northern countries where their use isn’t restricted, environmentalists who go shopping without their own reusable bags could be looked down upon by their friends for not walking the talk. This is a problem first and foremost because the impact of a single carrier bag is actually quite small, and by quite small I mean really small. A single bag of crisps has a bigger impact.

Comparison of the carbon footprint of a plastic carrier bag compared to crisps, orange juice and milk.

Comparison of the carbon footprint of a plastic carrier bag compared to crisps, orange juice and milk.

The reusable alternatives, such a cotton cloth bags, have a really big footprint and need to be used more than 125x before their impact is equivalent to one plastic bag, even if that plastic bag isn’t reused as a bin bag (which then increases it to hundreds of times!).  This savings is not just in carbon, but in a variety of environmental impacts, such as ecotoxicity, which are presented in the Environment Agency study.

Environment Agency life cycle assessment of different retail carrier bags

Environment Agency life cycle assessment of different retail carrier bags

This impact however, in itself, is much smaller than simply driving to the shop to get your shopping.

Comparison of a using a plastic carrier bags and driving a car to the store for one trip.

Comparison of a using plastic carrier bags and driving a car to the store for one shopping trip.

This is not to say that there are not merits to using reusable bags (I use them), but it is simply to point out that the sole focus of one’s green shopping existence should not be defined by what type of bag is used when there are bigger things to think about that are much easier to change.

We should certainly reduce waste wherever we can, but we shouldn’t feel guilty when the odd trip results in us forgetting a reusable bag at home… just reuse your new bag as a bin liner and you’ve already done something good. There are also new innovations coming out that make me even want to go back to using single use bags because of other helpful properties (e.g. bags that can be used for your food waste composting, meaning I don’t need to buy those separately as a product in itself).

Yes, reusable bags are good and we should all use them. No, it’s not the greenest thing you can do for your weekly shop. Ride a bike, you’ll do far more, get exercise, and not have to worry about forgetting it at home.