The Greenwashing* of Plastic Bags


* Per Wikipedia, Greenwashing: is a form of marketing spin in which green PR (green values) and green marketing are deceptively used to persuade the public that an organization's products, aims and policies are environmentally friendly and therefore ‘better’; appeal to nature.


I picked up a single-use plastic bag today to wrap around a food package that was leaking. That I’d asked for a produce bag and this one still had handles, in violation of Greenfield’s recent ban, is a different story. The bag was bragging about itself, and I find myself compelled to dissect these claims one at a time.

Firstly, know that the bag is #4 LDPE. That’s the plastic resin code intended to assist recyclers in knowing what plastic is used in the item, namely low density polyethylene. The bag is mostly clear, but has the slightly green tint often used to identify either a so-called “biodegradable” bag, or one that might hold organic produce. Neither was the case here. It also already had a 2.5 inch rip along one seam. It is very flimsy.

The bag states in a folksy first person narrative:

1) Thank You

For using the bag? Or shopping at the store? Whichever. Not going to pick that apart.

2) I am made from recycled materials. I am made from at least 30% post-industrial waste.

Translation: it is made from 70% virgin material plus 30% material that has never been used before, but that went in one end of the manufacturer’s factory and then back in the front side to try again, probably after scraps were cut off of other finished products. Better than throwing those scraps away, but I am unimpressed. Paper grocery bags in Greenfield are now required to be made out of at least 40% Post-Consumer material, and to say so.

3) I reduce road traffic. One truck can carry 2 million bags like me. Seven trucks are needed to carry 1 million paper sacks.

True as far as it goes. Also, it’s not just the traffic, but the fossil fuel use and pollution from those trucks. And this is part of why we’re NOT advocating for people to switch from single-use plastic bags to single-use paper bags. We are advocating eliminating single-use items in favor of reusable items of many sorts, including bags. Though also keep in mind grocery stores average just THREE (3) items placed in each plastic bag [circa 1980’s data, even before plastic bags were as thin as now]. Paper bags hold more, so it’s not a one-to-one comparison, or probably even one-to-two, as suggested here.

4) I’m cleaner. Producing me generates fewer pollutants than producing paper bags: 70% less air pollutants and only 2% of the water pollutants.

Probably true on a one-to-one comparison with paper bags. Again, we’re not advocating a switch to paper bags.

5) I use less energy. Making me involves a quarter of the energy used for a paper bag.

See #4 above.

6) I help save trees. My material is created from plentiful natural gas rather than ever more valuable trees or oil.

Oh, where to start? First of all, I love trees. Doesn’t saving trees make you feel all warm and fuzzy? Arguments that you suspect are trying to make you feel warm and fuzzy should be giant red flags that someone is trying to manipulate your emotions more than present you with facts. Yes, paper bags are made from trees and plastic bags are not. That could save trees. It’s good to save trees. Trees are a renewable resource, though the carbon uptake of a replacement seedling or sapling does not match that of the harvested adult tree.

Natural gas, to the extent that it is a byproduct of oil extraction, has sometimes been considered plentiful. But oil and natural gas are both fossil fuels, made, in my simplistic world view, from dinosaurs. They (oil, natural gas, and dinosaurs) are all non-renewable resources. This is one of those arguments about making sure the resource is still there for the seventh generation. It’s not just our own that counts. Unless we can start to agree that the world is not all about just humans, and certainly not just the currently present humans, we’re all in a lot of trouble.

7) I help in landfills. I’m light and take much less space than a paper bag.

Sigh. We’re not advocating using paper bags instead of plastic. (Have I said this already?) “Light” is a fascinating argument to make about filling landfills. Weight bears no relevance to the carrying capacity of the land. If each plastic bag was the same size and somehow weighed 3000 pounds, the earth in the landfill would probably not sink appreciably because of it. “Take much less space” in a landfill is true, but irrelevant if one, instead, were to compost or to recycle the paper bag, as one ought. And even taking less space doesn’t “help” in a landfill; it just doesn’t hurt as much – nothing about putting plastic in a landfill is beneficial to the landfill, the bag, or the earth.

And finally, this is an argument that makes no difference to Greenfield, (nor to most of Massachusetts, and nearly all of Connecticut). Our municipal solid waste does not go to any landfill. It goes to a waste-to-energy facility in the Springfield, MA area where it is burned to make electricity. There are good and bad things about that, but that, too, is an argument for another day.

There ends the bag’s remarks with no discussion of land or marine litter, climate change, wasteful habits, or better alternatives. Friends of Reusable Bags, however, has come to the conclusion that the best material to make bags out of is any material that already exists. Please join us.

Peg Hall
Friends of Reusable Bags
Greening Greenfield ( )
Solid Waste Consultant
Member, Product Stewardship Institute
Solid Waste Manager, Branford, CT, retired

All opinions expressed here are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of every group with which I am affiliated.

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