Which is the most earth-friendly: paper bags, plastic bags or cloth bags?
The answer to the question depends upon whether or not you really believe in science, because as they say in certain environmental activist circles, the "science is settled"! Here's the summary description of the bag found to be the best for the environment, which is defined as being the bag with the least negative impact upon the environment, as found in a very recent and thorough study on the topic:
The conventional HDPE bag had the lowest environmental impacts of the lightweight bags in eight of the nine impact categories. The bag performed well because it was the lightest bag considered. The lifecycle impact of the bag was dictated by raw material extraction and bag production, with the use of Chinese grid electricity significantly affecting the acidification and ecotoxicity of the bag.
Yes, the convential High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE) (aka "plastic") bag had the least impact upon the environment of all the bags considered in the study, which considered a number of bags made from different plastics, as well as both paper and cotton-based materials!
But that's only considering using each type of bag just once. For many eco-oriented people, the whole point is to reuse other kinds of bags to counteract the perceived environmental hazards posed by the conventional plastic bag.
Fortunately, the study revealed how many times the alternatives to the conventional plastic bag would have to be reused to overcome their own negative impacts to the environment:
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