The Sunday Magazine

Think cloth bags are better for the environment? Think again

A British government study looked at the environmental impact of the life cycle of various shopping bags. Jonna Meyhoff Fry, a co-author on the study, says cloth bags have a much greater environmental footprint than plastic bags.
Cloth bags aren't as environmentally friendly as we think, argues British researcher Jonna Meyhoff Fry. According to her, a cloth bag would have to be used 131 times to equal the environmental impact of one lightweight plastic bag. (iStock and CBC)

Originally published on Sept. 14, 2018.

There is a mountain of evidence that plastic pollution is harmful to the environment, and that plastic takes a very long time to break down.

But if you think cloth shopping bags are the solution, it's time to think again.

British government study looking at the environmental impact of the life cycle of various shopping bags found that cloth bags have a much greater environmental footprint than plastic bags.

"You have to re-use the cotton bag many times before the impact is similar to the lightweight conventional plastic bag," Jonna Meyhoff Fry, one of the study's co-authors, told The Sunday Edition's host, Michael Enright. "We found, for the assumptions we had made, you had to re-use it 131 times."

Based on a weekly shopping trip, this requires more than two years of regular use. 

"We assessed the energy and the resources required for extracting the materials in the first place, so extracting crude oil for plastic production or, in terms of the cotton bag, growing the cotton, processing that and producing the bags themselves; using the bag; and then, when they're no longer usable, disposing of them," Fry explained. 

Fry says greater energy and resources go into creating cotton bags than plastic bags. (Shutterstock / Rich Carey)

"Obviously, the plastic bag also requires resources and processing, but the impacts associated are not as significant as for the cotton bag."

While many consumers have a stash of cloth bags at home, they often forget to grab them when they go shopping. 

"You have to train yourself," Fry said. 

She suggests making sure you keep a bag in your car. Another tip? Write "cloth bag" at the top of your shopping list. 

Enright spoke with Fry about why the study does not excuse us from feeling guilty about the proliferation of plastic in our environment.

Click 'listen' above to hear the full interview. 


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