A while ago a friend asked me to wrote about plastic bags, current alternatives and the different measures that have being taken to reduce their consumption. Although plastic is present in many applications, bags have being the target of many attacks from environmental groups and have been object of boycotts, prohibitions and campaigns to reduce their consumption. No one doubts their usefulness but we use too many and throw them too soon. Plastic bags are easily replaced by another type of bags or objects that allow us to bring home our groceries.

The most used plastic bags are made of low density polyethylene, LDPE, a material derived of oil, which is not compostable. They can be recycled, but with big difficulties and little economic gain,which is why recycling is uncommon. Plastic bags end up, in the best of the cases, in an incinerator or in a dump. In the worst cases, they finish being thrown in the fields or in water, polluting the environment and creating many problems for the animals.

Any one that goes to the supermarket will realise that in the last years alternatives to the traditional plastic bag have begun to appear. Bags made of potato starch, recycled plastic, paper, reusable cotton and my favourite option: the traditional shopping trolley. If you are confused with all the words that describe the alternatives (biodegradable, compostable, renewable, sustainable…), you can consult my previous post Bioplastics vocabulary, where give detailed descriptions are provided. With such varied offer, the decision can be daunting for the responsible consumer. And the truth is, experts also argue on this, because all options have advantages and disadvantages.

The options

The alternatives to traditional plastic bags usually offer advantages with regards to one of more of these factors: sustainability of raw materials, compostability or capacity to reuse. Some of the most common options nowadays are:

Type Material In favour Against
Bioplastic Starch blends Partially renewable raw material Partial use of polyester – derived from oilDisposable

Difficult to recycle

Paper Recycled paper Renewable raw materialEasy to recycle DisposableEasy to break

Does not contain liquid

Cotton Cotton, sometimes organic Renewable raw materialReusable Does not contain liquidHas to be brought from home
Recycled plastic Recycled PET Sustainable raw materialReusable Has to be brought from home
Other reusable bags Nylon or other Reusable Has to be brought from home
Shopping trolleys Nylon and aluminium Reusable Not sustainable materialsHas to be brought from home

Occupies space at home

Measures against bags

Due to their environmental impact several measures have being taken to reduce their use, either public or private. These measures range from bans or levies to promotion of alternative options. The final impact they will have remains to be seen in the following years. Here are some examples of the different initiatives against plastic bags, although there are already many more.

Bans

  • Delhi, India: All non biodegradable bags were forbidden by the authorities. The punishment: a fine of more than 1,000 pounds or even enprisonment.
  • Italy: The government announced the 23rd of December of 2010 the ban of plastic bags, effective the 1st of January of 2011. Traders will be able to finish their stock, but not to replace them.

Private initiatives

  • Marks & Spencer: In 2008 it began to charge 5 pence per plastic bag in its UK shops. They expect this will save around 280 million bags.
  • Carrefour: It removed plastic bags in its supermarkets in Spain. Clients have to now carry them from home or buy reusable ones.
  • Modbury, United Kingdom: The 43 traders of this small village decided to stop offering plastic bags to clients. Some have instead offer cotton bags, others are using wrapping paper based on starch.

Levies

  • Ireland: In March 2002 Ireland imposed a levy of 15 cents per plastic bag. Per capita consumption fell by 90%, going from 328 bags per year to 21. The levy does not exclude biodegradable bags, only reusables. Considered a success due to its quick impact in consumption, the Irish lecy is often mentioned as a model. However, the European Association of plastic producers notes that while consumption of traditional bags fell, rubbish bag consumption went up by more than 70%.
  • Washington, D.C.: In January 2010 a tax of 5 cents per bag of plastic or paper was imposed. The money collected will be used in the cleaning of the Anacostia river. Other American cities have tried to impose a similar tax, but such attempts have been blocked.

Bags yes or no?

There are arguments in favour and against plastic bags. On one hand the fact that they are useful is undeniable.  Efforts made by the industry have reduced thickness and bags used nowadays are much lighter that those in the market 15 years ago. Those that defend plastic bags also argue that we use much more plastic in food packaging, which is often no need it and extremely difficult to recycle. On the other hand the massive consumption of plastic bags and the lack of criteria of too many consumers when disposing of  them has indeed worsen the environmental problem. A problem that does not result so complicated to solve, with a small individual effort. If you are amongst those that have begun to use reusable alternatives, my congratulations. But do not forget that the general trend is to reduce the useful life of everything we buy, so that we continue to consume, something that already affects all electronic products like mobiles, computers or toys. The key at the end will always be to reduce our consumption, reuse as far as possible what we already have and to responsible dispose what we do not need anymore.

photo credit: massimob(ian)chi