Single-Use Plastic Bags Are the Best Environmental Choice

(p. A15) Popular misconceptions have sustained the plastic panic. Environmentalists frequently claim that 80% of plastic in the oceans comes from land-based sources, but a team of scientists from four continents reported in 2018 that more than half the plastic in the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” came from fishing boats—mostly discarded nets and other gear. Another study, published last year by Canadian and South African researchers, found that more than 80% of the plastic bottles that had washed up on the shore of Inaccessible Island, an uninhabited extinct volcano in the South Atlantic, originated in China. They must have been tossed off boats from Asia, the greatest source of what researchers call “mismanaged waste.”

Of the plastic carried into oceans by rivers, a 2017 study in Nature Communications estimated, 86% comes from Asia and virtually all the rest from Africa and South America.

. . .

Yet single-use plastic bags aren’t the worst environmental choice at the supermarket—they’re the best. High-density polyethylene bags are a marvel of economic, engineering and environmental efficiency. They’re cheap, convenient, waterproof, strong enough to hold groceries but thin and light enough to make and transport using scant energy, water or other resources. Though they’re called single-use, most people reuse them, typically as trash-can liners. When governments ban them, consumers buy thicker substitutes with a bigger carbon footprint.

Once discarded, they take up little room in landfills. That they aren’t biodegradable is a plus, because they don’t release greenhouse gases like decomposing paper and cotton bags. The plastic bags’ tiny quantity of carbon, extracted from natural gas, goes back underground, where it can be safely sequestered from the atmosphere and ocean in a modern landfill with a sturdy lining.

For the full commentary, see:

John Tierney. “Plastic Bags Help the Environment.” The Wall Street Journal (Wednesday, February 19, 2020): A15.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date Feb. 18, 2020, and has the same title as the print version.)

The Nature Communications study mentioned in the passages quoted above, is:

Lebreton, Laurent C. M., Joost van der Zwet, Jan-Willem Damsteeg, Boyan Slat, Anthony Andrady, and Julia Reisser. “River Plastic Emissions to the World’s Oceans.” Nature Communications 8, no. 1 (June 10, 2017): 1-10.

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