Fewer Plastic Bags Could Actually Mean More Global Warming

Craig Boudreau | Vice Reporter

A new report from the University of Colorado at Boulder suggests the plastic bag ban could actually be aiding the increase of greenhouse gas ethane.

Researchers say after a steady decline in ethane from its peak in 1970 — which was attributed to better emission controls — they have seen an increase in ethane in the Northern Hemisphere of about 400,000 tons annually between 2009-2014.

“About 60 percent of the drop we saw in ethane levels over the past 40 years has already been made up in the past five years,” said one of the authors of the study, Detlev Helmig,

Part of the process of making a plastic bag requires ethane to be taken out of the mix, as ethane is too volatile to be safely used. Without ethane being used for plastic bag production, oil and gas companies are forced to burn the ethane off into the atmosphere.

Data taken from 30,000 air flasks (literally just bottles filled with outside air) gives evidence that ethane levels are rising. While the researchers largely attribute that to the oil and gas boom in America, the bag ban could be unintentionally exacerbating the increase.

Ethane also has a “global warming potential” (GWP) rating 5.5 times higher than that of CO2, making it a far more dangerous greenhouse gas.

In an article published by the Los Angeles Times in 2008, the plastic bag was touted as a beneficial “waste product”: “If the ethane is not used to make plastic, it would need to be burned off. Plastic bags are a wonderful use of a waste product.” But just a few years later it ran a piece titled “Let California’s plastic bag ban stand.”

Paper bags actually have a higher GWP than plastic, and need a lot more water, and energy to make.

There are really good things about plastic bags—they produce less greenhouse gas, they use less water and they use far fewer chemicals compared to paper or cotton,” David Tyler, chemistry professor at the University of Oregon, said in an interview with Matt Cooper in 2012. “The carbon footprint— that is, the amount of greenhouse gas that is produced during the life cycle of a plastic bag—is less than that of a paper bag or a cotton tote bag. If the most important environmental impact you wanted to alleviate was global warming, then you would go with plastic.”

Tyler goes on to say “carbon footprints are proportional to mass of an object.” So, the thicker the bag, the higher the GWP.

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