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Bag Footprint Calculator

Created by Hanna Pamuła, PhD
Reviewed by Małgorzata Koperska, MD and Adena Benn
Last updated: May 27, 2024

With our bag footprint calculator, you can find out how many times you need to use your bag to have the same carbon footprint as the other types of bags. We will try to resolve your doubts about plastic bags, reusable shopping bags, and paper bag footprints. Don't wait any longer if you're curious about how many times you need to use your stylish cotton tote bag to generate the same global warming potential as plastic bags. Give this calculator a go!

We based our bag footprint calculator on the data from Environment Agency report from 2011.

Plastic bags environmental footprint

According to the study, the plastic bags are the greenest ones. In eight out of nine impact categories (i.a., carbon footprint, ecotoxicity, eutrophication, human toxication), it has the lowest impact among all tested bag types. The effect can even be lowered by reusing plastic bags, and the most common ways are:

  • Use plastic bags as a bin liners;
  • Put rubbish into it, then throw it away;
  • Reuse for shopping; or
  • Use to store or pack things at home and work.

But we know perfectly that plastic bags are unfortunately not the ideal solution. They:

  • Pollute the oceans and choke animals 🐢 - whales, turtles, marine birds, and many others.
  • Are not easy to recycle ♻️ - only 1% of plastic bags are recycled.
  • Are produced from oil ⛽ - plastic production accounts for 0.2% of the earth's oil consumption each year.

So what can we do? What are the alternatives?

Paper bags footprint

Paper bags are used more and more often, as many cities and countries are starting to introduce charges for plastic bags or even total bans, as France did in 2016. We associate paper bags as a green alternative to plastic bags because they are made from paper made from trees, which is obviously a renewable resource - how could it be bad for the environment?

Unfortunately, paper bags are not the best option - they tear easily, so it's not possible to reuse them many times, their production creates 70% more air pollution than plastic bag production, and they weigh more and take up more space, so the transportation cost is much higher. One can argue that at least they don't pollute the oceans and can degrade quickly. Yes, that's true, but only partially - surprisingly, the paper that ends up in landfills doesn't degrade substantially faster than plastic bags! That's because the landfill conditions are not made for paper degradation, so piled-up rubbish lacks the water and oxygen needed for degradation. That's why the bag's end-of-life is so important - even choosing a bag made from natural sources like paper may be harmful to the environment if we don't recycle it properly.

Cotton tote bags - are they so eco-friendly?

Unfortunately, cotton and linen bags are not as green as many think. Although they are made from plants - a natural and renewable resource - their carbon footprint is high mainly because of the material production. We will need to use them more than 131 times to have lower global warming potential than conventional plastic bags - that's a lot, even for a reusable shopping bag.

Main goal - refuse!

So, which bag is the best? It's a question that is impossible to answer!

  • If you are looking at the general environmental impact, plastic bags have the smallest carbon footprint.
  • If landfill problem is the thing you care about the most, biodegradable or paper bags are the best option as you can compost them, and their degradation takes a couple of months in favorable conditions.
  • The LDPE reusable bag, when used more times, has a lower impact on acidification, aquatic ecotoxicity, and photochemical oxidation than a standard plastic bag.
  • Cotton tote bags have a massive carbon footprint because of the energy and fertilizers used to produce cotton yarn (and this also applies to our clothes). However, you can reduce the negative impact by using organic cotton & canvas bags and reusing the bag as many times as possible.

Hmmm... We are caught between a rock and a hard place. But wait, hey, we are mistaken! It IS possible to answer the question above - the best bag is the one you didn't take!

4Rs Rule: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle (+ Rot)

Try to refuse the bags and rethink your everyday choices: do you really need that paper bag for the T-shirt you just bought, or can you put it directly into your backpack? And that hand of bananas, does it need to be tightly wrapped in a thin plastic bag?

Remember the 4Rs rule: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, and try to call it into play. Sometimes the rule has one extra R, which stands for Rot, Repurpose or Remove. You can read more about the rule in our plastic footprint calculator, which also includes tips on how to reduce plastic usage. Try to make a sustainable life your philosophy. After playing with this bag footprint calculator, check out our other great green tools:

Hanna Pamuła, PhD
What type of bag do you use?
plastic bag
How many times are you going to use it?
How many bags do you throw away every week?
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