The Downfall of Plastic Shopping Bags: A Tale of Good Intentions Gone Awry
Inventions initially aimed at improving our lives can also bring about unforeseen and adverse societal consequences.
In my novels, I often explore how technological advancements can disrupt individual fortunes, from rags to riches or riches to rags, and how inventions initially aimed at improving our lives can also bring about unforeseen and adverse societal consequences.
In the late 19th century, my great-grandfather's thriving coach-building business crumbled in the wake of the motorcar's emergence. Back then, the motorcar was celebrated as an environmental savior, liberating cities from the pollution and diseases spawned by manure-covered streets. However, the unforeseen consequence was a different kind of pollution and the climate change crisis we now face.
History abounds with examples of well-intentioned inventions that, over time, reveal their darker sides. Just as the motorcar promised cleaner streets by supplanting horse-drawn carriages, plastic bags were initially conceived as an eco-friendly alternative to reduce the environmental strain caused by paper bags.
Before plastic shopping bags were invented in 1959, paper bags were the go-to choice for most people.
During that era, Swedish engineer Sten Gustaf Thulin grew troubled by the extensive tree harvesting needed for paper bag production. His innovative vision of a durable, lightweight, and pocket-sized bag was remarkably ahead of its time. Rooted in reusability, it served as a precursor to today's eco-conscious practice of toting reusable bags to the store.
However, with time, unforeseen consequences emerged. Much like the shift from horses to cars, plastic bags initially symbolized convenience and affordability. Their original intent as reusable items gradually eroded, transforming them into disposables and emblematic of the pervasive single-use plastic pollution crisis we grapple with today.
Consequently, many countries have imposed fees or bans on single-use plastic bags, leading people to turn to paper and cotton bags in the belief that these are more environmentally friendly. Regrettably, this shift has inadvertently compounded the problem.
When it comes to climate change, paper and cotton shopping bags are worse than plastic.
What most people don’t realize is that paper and cotton shopping bags require a great deal more energy and water to produce and are far heavier and bulkier to transport, contributing to additional environmental concerns. Notably, cotton cultivation is notorious for its water-intensive nature and pesticide use.
Surprisingly, a properly recycled single-use plastic bag can have a lower environmental impact than its paper or cotton counterparts. A paper bag must be used at least three times to match this impact, while a cotton bag requires a staggering 131 uses.
Remedying the harm is not always easy. Yet in the case of shopping bags it’s incredibly simple.
In history, good intentions have often taken dark turns. The widespread use of DDT against malaria led to environmental damage and harm to non-target species. Asbestos, hailed for its fire-resistant properties, resulted in severe health issues. GMO organisms, designed to enhance food production, raised ecological and corporate control concerns. Similarly, the promising nuclear energy sector suffered catastrophic accidents like Chernobyl and Fukushima.
While some ill-conceived inventions can be discontinued, others pose greater challenges due to commercial or political pressures and short-term convenience. Examples include nuclear energy used for weapons, artificial intelligence, and our oil-dependent global economy.
Yet, some solutions can be simple. For example, there's no compelling reason to replace plastic shopping bags with paper or cotton, provided they are reused. If faced with a $1 price tag for a plastic shopping bag, you can be sure most people would re-use it over and over. When bags are damaged, they can be returned to grocery retailers that accept them for recycling, often partnering with large plastic recyclers.
Ultimately, the key takeaway for you and me is straightforward: Whatever bags we have, regardless of what they are made of, we must reuse them persistently. While the path of good intentions may sometimes lead us astray, public awareness and collective action can guide us back to a greener and more responsible future.