The end is nigh for the plastic carrier bag

In the UK we consume over 13 billion plastic bags every year. That’s 36 million a day and an average use of 4 per person per week. Apart from being a dreadful waste of natural, non-renewable energy and other natural resources, plastic creates a serious threat to wildlife and represents one of the key contributors toward environmental pollution.

The plastic lobby will tell you that ‘polybags’ are made from a by-product of the oil-cracking process and that plastic is one of the most efficient methods of making performance packaging. They are of course correct, but this is only part of the story and therefore you need to be certain you gain a balanced argument on this complex subject. The majority of plastics are made from non-renewable, depleting materials sourced from oil, which according to latest estimates, could run out within forty years. Add to this the huge challenge of recovering and recycling the wide variety of plastic packaging (some of which has been designed to degrade thanks to an additive, which breaks down the long polymer molecules) and you begin to realise why most councils will tell you that plastic is ‘non-recyclable’. Some towns and cities have already abolished the use of plastic bags since May 2007 including Modbury in Devon thanks to the passionate actions of a BBC wildlife camera person called Rebecca Hosking. She witnessed first hand the devastation that plastic bags and other plastic waste packaging can have on marine ecosystems in various parts of the globe. Following this good example, over 100 other UK towns are in the process of voluntarily stopping the use of plastic bags.

How long does it take to make a plastic bag?

Jute bag in action in Maldon

I stood in front of a group of bright-eyed school children recently aged four to eleven years to talk about sustainable packaging. I opened with a question ‘does anyone know how long it takes to make a plastic bag?’ Little hands shot up and the replies ranged from 20 minutes to 1 day to 3 weeks. ‘About 200 million years’ I said. Children (and the majority of adults I meet) know that dinosaurs were on earth 65 million years ago, but don’t realise how long it takes to naturally produce certain precious minerals. I then asked if anyone knew the difference between a sustainable forest and deforestation. The answer from one of the eleven year old boys at the back of the assembly hall was encouraging. He said ‘one is responsibly controlled by man and the other is not’. Good answer. I explained that some trees are grown like crops and harvested to make way for new life and that thanks to an ancient natural process called photosynthesis, trees and plants absorb sunlight, water and carbon dioxide (one of the contributor gases toward global warming) and produce cellulose biomass and oxygen. Deforestation and the widespread removal of forests in exchange for competing land use is probably man’s most visible mindless destruction of our planet. It has to stop urgently. Whether we realise it or not, we are slowly poisoning our planet with the over-production and net concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Trees and plants not only create a vital habitat for thousands of species, but they act as a ‘carbon sink’ and sophisticated water regulation, storage and distribution system. This is partly why deforestation is followed by erratic weather patterns, soil erosion and floods.

Alternatives to plastic bags

The viable alternative options to plastic bags include reusable bags made from abundant plant-based crops (not requiring pesticides and harmful invention by man) including jute, canvas, organic cotton, corn starch and bamboo. Disposable corn starch bags (which look and feel a bit like plastic) are an excellent sustainable, renewable and compostable alternative. So why are the major retailer groups not queuing up to buy these products? Well, in most countries in Europe they already are and this is beginning to happen in the UK albeit slowly. Price is the main barrier. Leadership from government is very much required here because no one retail group will stick its neck out and threaten itself with loss of customers, market share and share holder profit for just ‘doing the right thing’.
What about paper bags, are they harmful to the environment? In some cases yes, but paper sourced from managed forests, which is independently audited by FSC (www.fsc.org) or PEFC (www.pefc.org) is ecologically responsible and sustainable. Trees, when farmed, managed and harvested correctly, are crops just like barley or corn. They have a longer life-cycle, but are grown naturally and without the use of harmful chemicals. Paper products are made from tree-clippings whilst the core of the tree is used to make timber. Always buy products bearing the FSC or PEFC symbol to be certain of the materials provenance. For example, M&S, B&Q, Homebase, Sainsbury, Ikea and Habitat are all actively promoting FSC for timber, virgin-fibre packaging and paper-based products. People assume recycled paper is more environmentally friendly than virgin fibre paper. This is not the case because without virgin fibre we would not have recycled products. Fibre strength (important for performance packaging) deteriorates with each re-pulping and a fresh supply of strong, new fibre is necessary. For some packaging products e.g. direct food contact packaging, virgin fibre is necessary and it can be shown that less weight (and therefore energy) is required to perform the protective, informing, transporting and promoting functions of packaging. There is no excuse for over-packaging, but we need to appreciate some packaging performs a waste-saving and in some cases, life-saving role.

If plastic bags do become socially unacceptable in the UK and other parts of the world, then other plastic packaging will inevitably follow a similar path of evolution. In the UK the total consumption of plastics amounts to about 2.4 million tonnes, of which approximately 60% is packaging, that is discarded as soon as the package is open. We only recover and recycle only a third of plastic packaging and the rest goes to landfill along with £350-400 million of other packaging waste. Many of these plastics end-up in landfills where they will stay for centuries. About 50% of packaging in supermarkets today is made from plastic. There are plenty of good economic and product performance arguments for this reality, but it will have to start to change to avoid a collision course with nature.  Plastic is low cost on the face of it, but when you add-up the total true cost, it may no longer be the ‘nice and a cheap’ packaging solution we first thought. More to the point, it may no longer be acceptable to the demands of society and the unstoppable force of nature. Over the next ten years it is predicted we’ll witness an eco-revolution not unlike the industrial revolution of the 1900’s. We can expect a drive toward a lower carbon economy and a focus on achieving economic growth using new carbon-neutral technologies.

How best to carry our shopping

Next time you’re offered a plastic carrier bag – including the thicker plastic ‘bag-4-life’ variety just say ‘no thank you’ and invest in a sustainable reusable bag instead.

 

This article was written by Ian (@portabud) who is the founder of Oneidea Ltd

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