Reusable shopping bags are key to fighting plastic pollution

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Experts say plastic pollution is one of many symptoms linked to recycling and climate change that continue to harm the environment.

“When you’re talking about disposables, single-use plastics are a great example,” said Sherry Miller, a professor of sustainable systems at the University of Michigan’s School of Environmental Sustainability. “It’s actually part of the throwaway culture that we’ve cultivated, the idea that we take resources from the earth and spend so much energy making something that it’s really meant to be thrown away. I have.”

“Plastic bags are very difficult to recycle.”

“Plastic bags in particular are very difficult to recycle,” Miller said. “There’s not a lot of material for them. They often don’t work well with traditional recycling infrastructure. A lot of it ends up in landfills. From an environmental standpoint, this is the desired situation if it’s not going to be recycled. Alternatives That means a small portion of it may end up in the environment and cause some problems for wildlife.”

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“What do the numbers tell us?”

The annual production rate of synthetic polymers, or plastics, has increased over the past 70 years. According to a study conducted by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, approximately 10 billion tons of plastic have been produced worldwide to date.

Although most of this plastic waste is buried in landfills, recycled, or incinerated, an estimated 12% to 18% of plastic waste ends up in the environment due to mismanagement or littering. .

Experts say plastics don’t break down as much because of their synthetic nature. Rather, they continue to fragment into smaller pieces. This characteristic, combined with the explosive growth of mismanaged plastics, means that the amount of mismanaged plastics accumulated is increasing by a factor of 2 to 10 per decade. This suggests that there may be.

According to a study conducted by the United Nations Environment Programme, single-use plastic bags are one of the most consumed items in the world. However, shopping alternatives such as reusable cotton and paper bags also have an environmental footprint and do not necessarily outperform plastic bags in all environmental categories.

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“What impact on the environment are we concerned about?”

“Part of the challenge is that everything we make has an impact on the environment,” Miller said. “And this ultimately comes down to the question of what kind of environmental impact are we most concerned about?” I can feel it.”

What about cotton bags?

“At the same time, cotton production is very environmentally and water intensive,” Miller says. “There are typically a lot of fertilizers and pesticides associated with it. So there are a lot of agricultural issues involved in producing cotton to make cotton bags. It’s not that canvas bags are bad. But they often need to be reused far more times than something like a more durable plastic reusable bag.”

How many times should a reusable bag be reused?

Experts say reusable bags are environmentally better than single-use plastic bags if used over and over again.

  • Cotton bags should be used 50 to 150 times to have a low climate impact.
  • The thick polypropylene bag can be used 10 to 20 times.
  • Slim reusable polythene bags need to be used 5 to 10 times to have the same climate impact as single-use plastic bags.

“In general, the more reusable items you can reuse, the better,” Miller says. “I always go back to the three R’s: reduce, reuse and recycle. That’s always a good rule of thumb for people to follow.”

This reporting content is supported by multiple funders and partnerships with journalism funding partners.

Erica Van Buren is a climate change reporter for the Augusta Chronicle, part of the USA TODAY Network. Contact her at EVanBuren@gannett.com or her X: @EricaVanBuren32.

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