Paper versus plastic versus canvas has become another one of those ecobattles that call both sides to the site of the latest green battleground: the grocery store. (You can also look at bottled water.)
We've heard that plastic bags are evil, because they don't biodegrade. Therefore, many cities have taken steps to ban them, and grocery stores charge customers to use them. Not so fast, says John Tierney of the New York Times. The fifth item in his list of "10 Things to Scratch From Your Worry List" today states that plastic bags require less energy to produce, and less pollution goes into the air and the water during their manufacturing. They also take up less space in landfills. At the same time, they take up more space in the floating island of trash gathering in the Pacific.
The obvious answer for an ecofriendly consumer is to bring your own reusable bags to the grocery store each time you go. And if this is what you choose, you'll be making quite a fashion statement—green grocery bags are becoming collectible designer items, like Anya Hindmarch's "I'm Not a Plastic Bag" design, which caused a stampede in Whole Foods when it was offered for sale. There's also this "I Heart the Earth" tote at designer boutique Cusp, which sells for a whopping $58, as well as Envirosax, which has several lines of grocery bags.
Though the environmental effects of paper and plastic are well documented, it's harder to find dirt on reusable bags. According to Inspiro, cotton bags generate more greenhouse gas than nonwoven fabrics do during production. Inspiro recommends bags made of polypropylene, a recyclable and nontoxic plastic, which can be found at Whole Foods and many other grocery stores. This material also makes the reusable bag stronger than other types.
If you want the most ecofriendly option, though, don't buy any bags at all. Carry your groceries instead in bags you already own—everyone has a few backpacks and canvas totes lying around—and you'll be saving trees, the ozone layer, and your own cash. No fashion statement necessary. If you're especially crafty, you can take it one step further: Knit your old plastic bags into a reusable tote, and keep those already used bags out of a landfill.