The Hidden Costs of Grocery Bags

Hi, everyone. As you may be aware, Bloomingfoods is dedicated to minimizing our use of plastic bags as quickly as possible, so we found very interesting this article that just came our way via the Davis Food Co-op . We wanted to share it with our members.

One issue that doesn’t seem to be addressed with much clarity: produce stays fresher in its original plastic bag and/or in a clamshell. What is the ecological trade-off on that?
Stay tuned. Change is afoot.


The Hidden Costs of Grocery Bags

by Lisa Lucio Gough

ImageAs conscientious shoppers we readily embrace the organic mindset and seek out locally grown food to promote a healthy body and a green environment. Yet many of us overlook one small detail that would make our shopping experience even more earth friendly: reusable bags.

As the great debate lingers over which is better — paper or plastic — the actual costs of producing and disposing of either at the expense of the environment suggest that neither is a good choice. “There’s a lot more to it than just paper and plastic,” says Dave Schermerhorn of the National Cooperative Grocer’s Association, referring to the use of raw materials, manufacturing practices and distribution routes, all of which must be considered. Both types of bags require the use of valuable natural resources, produce numerous pollutants during manufacturing, have negative impacts on wildlife — and neither is effectively recycled. To get a better idea of the costs of grocery bags, be they paper or plastic, one must follow their trail from “cradle to grave.”

Consider the familiar plastic bag. These single-use, high-density polyethylene bags are manufactured from petroleum, a nonrenewable resource. It’s estimated that nearly 12 million barrels of oil are required to make the 100 billion [?] plastic shopping bags Americans go through annually. Plastic bags have captured more than 80 percent of the supermarket and convenience store packaging market at a cost of $4 billion to U.S. retailers annually.
Worldwide, between 500 billion and 1 trillion plastic bags are consumed each year, according to, a website launched to educate the public about the true costs associated with the use of disposable bags.

Of course, the trail of paper bags starts in our forests. In 1999, 14 million trees were cut to produce the 10 billion paper grocery bags used by Americans. It’s not surprising that most people prefer paper, believing it is the more responsible choice. Yet, like plastic, paper puts a heavy burden on the environment in terms of production, consumption and disposal.

Manufacturing paper bags requires virgin timber (for greater strength and elasticity), which is processed into heat-treated wood chips. This creates numerous byproducts that pollute waterways and produce greenhouse gases, which are consequently absorbed by fewer trees. In fact, according to the Film and Bag Federation, a trade group within the Society of the Plastics Industry based in Washington, D.C., paper bag production requires more energy, generates more solid waste, produces more atmospheric emissions and releases more waterborne wastes compared to plastic grocery bags.

Advocates of paper bags point out that trees are a renewable resource, but it takes years to replace the old, biologically rich forests that are harvested to make them.