How did tote bags get so popular?

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Plastic bags are practical, no question about it. It is light and tear-resistant. The paper bag, on the other hand, is less stable, but it is environmentally friendly. Is it really like that? The BAYERN 1 Environment Commissioner determined.

By: Alexander Dallmus

Status: 19.09.2019 | archive

Plastic bags are used for an average of 25 minutes. That means they are bought, used once and thrown away. Depending on the type of plastic, it takes between 100 and 500 years for a plastic bag to decompose if it is not recycled.

Since the environmental balance of an object is always measured by how often it is used, this is of course ecological madness (see also Are glass bottles better than plastic bottles?). Because around the world a million plastic bags are used every minute.

Fewer plastic bags - more light plastic fruit bags


The plastic packaging industry association estimates the annual consumption in Germany alone at 6.1 billion plastic bags. This means that consumption in Germany has fallen by one billion since 2000. 198 plastic bags per capita are used annually across the EU.
So-called 'shirt bags' (plastic bags at the fruit counter, for example) hit a total of 3.1 billion across Germany.
That is a total of 94,814 t of plastic waste in Germany.

Why is the plastic bag so popular?

  • Low manufacturing costs make them cheap.
  • The production is also less energy-intensive and low-emission (compared to other containers).
  • The plastic bag is light, tear-proof and also water and chemical resistant.
  • In addition, it is easy to process, can be welded and is basically recyclable.

That speaks against the plastic bag

  • Every German consumes an average of 76 plastic bags per year. 36 of them are reused, 40 used only once. Shirt bags cost 39 per person.
  • The raw material is crude oil, so a finite resource.
  • Depending on the material, a plastic bag takes centuries to rot.
  • In the sea, the crushed plastic waste ends up in the food chain.

How much organic is there in bioplastic bags?

The BIO plastic bag is no longer compostable in modern composting plants.

In theory, according to industry standard 13432, the bioplastic bag is 100 percent compostable. That means: after three months in an industrial composting facility, a maximum of ten percent of the bag remains may be larger than two millimeters. Then there is the seal of approval, a seedling. But the norm is unfortunately out of date. Because modern plants only need three to four weeks to turn organic waste into humus. The bioplastic cannot keep up with this and shreds of bags are left behind. Nobody wants this humus. In the German composting plants, organic bags are therefore sorted out in the same way as PE bags - and are sent to the waste incinerator.

Bioplastic bags - a case for waste incineration

A British study comes to the conclusion that bioplastic bags belong exactly there. After the energy consumption for the manufacture of the maize fertilizer and the CO2 emissions of all transports for the production have been factored in, the effects on global warming, the ozone layer, groundwater, the soil and more could be recorded. In terms of all environmental impacts, waste incineration does better than composting, or at least as good.

If the organic bag is burned, it will at least still be used to generate electricity. Apart from carbon dioxide, which is also released during composting, there are no pollutants. But regardless of whether it is incinerated or composted, most environmental damage is caused by the manufacture of the materials and the production of the bag.

The problem with organic plastic bags is the cultivation of maize.

The main disadvantage for bioplastics is the cultivation of maize, which affects the soil and the climate. In a current life cycle assessment by the Anglo-Welsh environmental authority, there is therefore no decision between the organic and PE bags. Even for the problem of litter, bioplastics are currently not a solution. The material rots best in industrial composting at a temperature of 60 degrees. The organic bags are currently not rotting or rotting in the sea. For us supermarket customers this means: if you are worried about the overfertilization of the soil and the cornification of the world, stay away from the organic bag.

How environmentally friendly are paper bags?

The life cycle assessment of the paper bag is no better than that of the plastic bag.

At first glance, everyone would be tempted to say that the paper bag is more environmentally friendly than the plastic bag in every respect. Because who knows that production requires almost twice as much energy. Added to this is the significantly higher pollution of air and water by nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide and other chemicals with which the cellulose fibers have to be treated.

Paper bag or plastic bag?

Another problem is reusability. Paper is just not as tear-resistant and also not water-repellent. Whether paper bags are better or worse than plastic bags in individual cases depends on the raw material used (waste paper, recycled plastic) and the type of disposal.

How environmentally friendly are cotton bags?

Cotton tote bags are only greener if they are used very often.

Cotton carrier bags are not automatically more environmentally friendly, but only after being reused many times. This was the result of an investigation by the Federal Laboratories for Material Testing and Research from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. The reason for this is the high emission values ​​during manufacture. While the production of a paper bag emits around 60 grams of carbon dioxide, a plastic bag made from new granulate emits around 120 grams and a cotton bag even 1,700 grams of CO2.


If you are afraid of climate change, use your plastic bags, whether organic or PE, as often as possible. And if you want to do everything right, buy a fair trade organic cotton bag and use it until the end of your life. After just 30 purchases, a cotton bag is “greener” than disposable plastic bags (even if they are used about three times).

While the use of plastic bags is prohibited in many other countries, such as India or France, a ban is currently not an issue in Germany. Also because in this country the bags are sorted separately and then disposed of or recycled. In supermarkets, customers have been paying for their carrier bags for a long time.

In order to reduce the consumption of bags in Europe, a tax might also be better than a ban. In Ireland, a tax of 15 cents per bag reduced annual consumption from 328 to 21 bags per capita. In Germany, PE bags are still given away in shoe stores, pharmacies and toy stores.

The price plays a decisive role. If they are sold according to their purchase price, 80 percent of customers opt for plastic, 15 percent for paper and five percent for cotton. Many find the plastic bag more practical because it also protects goods from rain.

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Which shopping bag is the most environmentally friendly? Plastic bags are practical, light and tear-resistant. The paper bag, on the other hand, is less stable, but it is environmentally friendly. Is that really so? Posted by BAYERN 1 on Sunday, June 30th, 2019

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