Assessing the environmental impact of a particular product can be a complex issue that sometimes is not as obvious as it might initially seem. A further investigation often reveals other factors that must be taken into account. Consider just one example: plastic shopping bags.

Many municipalities have passed ordinances to prohibit or discourage the use of plastic shopping bags. What happens to all of those "free" plastic bags we get at the grocers, department stores and restaurants? Some consider this to be one of the most pressing litter threats our ecosystems face.

On the other hand, the plastics industry presents a different picture. They state that plastic shopping bags are NOT a major component of litter, that they make up a very small proportion of landfill, that there is high re-use of plastic shopping bags in Canada, that there is a high percentage of recycling, and that plastic shopping bags are an efficient use of energy, since they account for less than one-tenth of one per cent of the hydrocarbon use in Canada and can be recycled.

Some might think that, in view of the concerns over plastic bags, paper bags are a more desirable environmental option. Here are some of the issues involved when considering paper bags as an alternative:

“The process of making paper bags causes 70% more atmospheric pollution than plastic bags. Paper bags use 300% more energy to produce, and the process uses huge amounts of water and creates very unpleasant organic waste. When they degrade they emit methane and carbon dioxide. A stack of 1000 new plastic carrier bags would be around 2 inches high, but a stack of 1000 new paper grocery bags could be around 2 feet high. It would take at least seven times the number of trucks to deliver the same number of bags, creating seven times more transport pollution and road congestion. Also, because paper bags are not as strong as plastic, people may use two or three bags inside each other. Paper bags cannot normally be re-used, and will disintegrate if wet.”

Since the very strength and durability which makes plastic such a useful and economic packaging material can be a major problem when disposal is required, many manufacturers feel that the best solution to the problem is biodegradable bags – particularly, oxo-biodegradable bags:

“This technology produces plastic which degrades by a process of OXO-degradation. The technology is based on a very small amount of pro-degradant additive being introduced into the manufacturing process, thereby changing the behaviour of the plastic. Degradation begins when the programmed service life is over (as controlled by the additive formulation) and the product is no longer required. The plastic does not just fragment, but will be consumed by bacteria and fungi after the additive has reduced the molecular structure to a level which permits living micro-organisms access to the carbon and hydrogen. It is therefore “biodegradable.” This process continues until the material has biodegraded to nothing more than CO2, water, and humus, and it does not leave fragments of petro-polymers in the soil.”

With all of this confusing and sometimes contradictory information to consider, how can you, as a consumer, make an informed choice? Obviously, education is the key. You need to have an understanding of the terminology used in the environmental discussion to assist you in making informed choices, and you need to become aware of environmental issues and environmentally preferable product options. You need to stay current with the latest findings to help you to evaluate your present product choices and procedures, and see if you need to make adjustments.


To maneuver your way through the complexity and confusion that arises as you assess the environmental impact of various products, you need a clear vision of YOUR environmental goals to provide focus. In the end, YOU need to weigh all the factors, and decide which considerations are most important to YOU.

Contact a Pinnacle Product Expert who will be happy to assist you in making your product decisions.

An additional resource to help you in making responsible green choices is considering independent third party certification.

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