Plastic, Paper or Cotton Bags?

Ah! The ubiquitous plastic carrier bag. Those of us who are old enough (ahem!) would remember a time BEFORE the plastic bag.

That's correct! The plastic bag has only been around for about one generation. In fact, the plastic bag only became common-place from the late 1970s.

What was life like before the plastic bag?

People brought their own bags or baskets to do their shopping. Bags were made from natural, hard-wearing but biodegradable materials such as cloth, wicker cane, or jute.

Because these bags cost money to buy or some great effort to make, they were used and re-used until they were beyond repair before they were replaced.

When plastic bags were first introduced at UK supermarkets, we had to pay for them. These were the very sturdy plastic bags that could be re-used several times. The need to pay for bags was an incentive to bring our own bags.

However new technology meant that bags could be made of less plastic, and therefore became cheaper to make and retailers realized that giving away free bags induced more impulse buying.

What's so wrong with the plastic bag?

It's made from oil. Full stop. Maybe not. It's made from a by-product of oil refining. When we use plastic, we are indirectly using oil. Some may argue that because it is a by-product of oil refining, it will be there any way, whether or not we convert it into plastic bags or something else.

The truth is when we think 'oil' it's not only the science and technology involved. It's also the politics and economics. How many wars have been fought — are being fought — over oil? Our insatiable demand for oil — to fuel cars and our plastic habits — has an impact on international relations. Believe it or not.

A plastic bag does not biodegrade. I remember sitting in my Sociology Honours Class on Social Theory (in the mid-1980s). A new lecturer (recently returned from Canada) blurted "but these bags have an incredibly long half-life!". I  cannot now remember what he was teaching about social theory (probably something about the Frankfurt School when I think of it), but an indelible mark was left somewhere in my brain about the plastic bag.

It's been said plastic bags could last 500 years, 1000 years, etc. The truth is we don't really know. Because the "respirometry tests" done on newspapers and banana peel (eg) to determine how long it takes for these materials to biodegrade do not work on plastic.

Why? Because the plastic shopping bag is made of a man-made polymer that micro-organisms do not recognize as food! And as plastic bags have only been around for 50 years, no one can actually say how much longer they would last.

Plastic bags do photodegrade when exposed to UV light. They break down into smaller fragments and IN THEORY could eventually fragment into microscopic granules (think: "incredibly long half life"). But we don't know.

Once landfilled, however, there is no light to cause it to break down. See Will My Plastic Bag Still Be Here in 2507? (2007).

Even if they do break down, plastic bags become little toxic bits contaminating soil, waterways, oceans and can enter the food web when ingested by animals.

What happens when plastic bags are incinerated?

Even inhaling the smoke from burning plastic — which releases dioxins and furans — could cause cancer, impotence, asthma and a myriad other allergies to human beings. See Burning plastics could alter human sexual behaviour (2006).

Plastic bags have a huge negative impact on marine life. Globally, an estimated one million birds and 100,000* marine mammals and sea turtles die every year from entanglement in, or ingestion of, plastics.

In August 2000, a Bryde's whale died in Trinity Bay, Australia. A post-mortem found that the whale's stomach was tightly packed with plastic. Similarly, a minke whale that was stranded on a beach in Normandy was found to have 800g of plastic bags and packaging within its stomach. (Source: Marine debris and cetaceans)

It is, to some extent, the irresponsible behaviour of human beings that is causing the injury to these animals. The sheer quantity of plastic bags used is staggering.

The world uses over 1.2 trillion plastic bags a year, an average of about 300 bags for each adult on the planet. That comes out to over one million bags being used per minute. In the UK at least 200 million plastic bags end up as waste, many on our beaches, streets and parks ever year. However a person uses a plastic carrier bag on average for only 12 minutes. (Source: Why are Plastic Bags an Issue?)

The Australians alone used around 10 billion plastic bags per year, nearly 7 billion of which are supermarket plastic bags. Over 230,000 of these plastic bags are dumped in landfills every hour! (Source: Plastic Bag Reduction Strategy (pre-2004))

The Americans are said to use at least one billion bags a year, whilst in Britain, it is said that each person goes through about 167 bags each in a year. The figures of plastic bag use seem to be quite, uhm, plastic and I suspect it's because nobody seems to know exactly how many are being use, re-used or disposed.

It's the dumping of the plastic bag (human action) and the composition of the plastic bag (the toxic chemicals) which make plastic bag such a hated object.

Is paper a good alternative?

Plastic bags are bad ... but are paper bags any better?

In the corner FOR plastic you could read:

Paper Vs. Plastic Bags? (Date of article unknown though it quotes sources up to 1997. Most of the links on this page are now defunct.) 

Its conclusion is: "The making of paper can waste many thousands of gallons of water, as can the recycling of paper. The human and mechanical efforts and costs are very high, not forgetting the physical cost to loggers and those who work around the numerous chemicals. Plastic is, by comparison, efficient and low energy to produce, and, easily and efficiently recycled. Plastic reduces, recycles marvelously, and in that, is reused. After contrasting the efforts behind the making of paper and plastic, it is our unbiased opinion that plastic is indeed more beneficial to the environment, in that it is less harmful."

"Unbiased opinion"? This is despite the authors knowing that the electricity used is mainly from nuclear sources.

Carrier Bags (from 'The Packaging Institute')

According the BPF (I think this is the British Plastics Federation, which represents the whole plastics supply chain in Britain): "Plastic bags are useful and provide a hygienic, odourless, waterproof, robust and convenient way of carrying goods. Because of their strength and durability plastics bags can be re-used time and time again, either for a similar purpose or a wide range of other uses. As the NOP survey, commissioned by DEFRA in 2000, amply illustrates, more than 80 per cent re-use their plastic carrier bags, a high re-use rate for consumer packaging."

"80 per cent re-use"?

This constrasts drastically with "1 in 200 bags recycled" elsewhere.

"Depending upon whom you ask, the rate at which plastic bags are recycled is anything between 80 per cent (the UK Carrier Bag Consortium) and 0.5 per cent (the BBC). The CBC would count reusing a bag once as a bin-liner as 'recycling'; the less partial BBC would say that recycling should only refer to what happens when it is thrown away."  (Source: The Perils of Plastic Amnesia (Ecologist, 2006))

I like 'The Perils' article a lot despite some major typos there. It's an interesting take on the plastic bag issue, premised on how the retailers are capitalizing on our forgetfulness (hence 'Amnesia') to bring a bag with us but would still want to shop. And why do retailers put their names on the bags? To remind us where we have shopped! O! Did I really just say that? (!)

The Packaging Institute site also quotes Jane Bickerstaffe who tells us that:

"According to the UK government's environment department, over 80% of plastic bags are re-used by British households.

"Bags represent just 0.3% of household waste sent to landfill and the fact that they are relatively inert and stable is an advantage. Once a bag has completed its task of transporting purchases from shop to home, it becomes a bin liner, a disposable nappy bag, or something to carry muddy football boots in.

"In practice, the tax in Ireland has actually had a negative effect on the environment. Deprived of thin bags, people have had to buy tailor-made bags. Tesco reports selling 80% more pedal bin liners and SuperQuinn supermarket 84% more disposable nappy bags; these are thicker and use more resources.

"Marks & Spencer reports using three times as many lorries to transport alternative bags to their Irish stores with a resulting rise in exhaust emissions and traffic nuisance.

"So let's not be too hard on the thin plastic carrier bag. We can use it for its original purpose and then re-use it for lots of other things when we get it home."

Jane Bickerstaffe is, at the time of writing the above, director of Incpen, the Industry Council for Packaging and the Environment, in the UK.

In the corner AGAINST plastic, well, sort of:

Paper vs. Plastic - The Shopping Bag Debate

It's too easy for some people to distract us from the plastic bag issue by saying the paper bag is not a better alternative. Just think:

"Paper sacks generate 70% more air and 50 times more water pollutants than plastic bags, and it takes 91% less energy to recycle a pound of plastic than it takes to recycle a pound of paper. It takes more than four times as much energy to manufacture a paper bag as it does to manufacture a plastic bag." (Source: Paper Versus Plastic? Neither!)

As the preceding two articles rightly point out, the debate is not, should not, be "paper or plastic?". If this tactic smells fishy to you, it's because it is a red herring.

The solution to the plastic bag is a reusable bag. A wicker basket. Anything else that is grown without pesticides and biodegrades.

But then you get senior writers like Dr Andy Ho at Straits Times driving up and down motorways in Singapore to find only four plastic bags flapping about, and who then concludes (12th May 2007) that plastic bag litter is not a problem in Singapore.

He goes on to say cotton bags are not a better alternative as cotton is known to require huge amounts of poisonous chemicals to produce. (Can't show the source as the Straits Times requires even paying subscribers like me to pay (again) to read archived pages.)

My response is: Why was he driving up and down the motorways pointlessly, adding unnecessarily to carbon emissions?

Whilst Dr Ho is right about the use of pesticides on cotton, has he not heard of organic cotton?

Which leaves me to say, please look again at "The Cotton Question" on this site.

For a less hysterical, more scientific perspective to the plastic problem, try these site:

Redemption from the Plastics Wasteland

The Plastic Tax Question

Arguments FOR the tax: ....

It has worked in Ireland. Number of bags reduced by 90%, etc. (by the anti-plastic bag lobby).

Arguments AGAINST the tax: ....

Alternatives like paper bags are heavier and require more volume to transport, hence increasing carbon output, etc (see above, by the plastic bag manufacturing lobby).

Does it matter?

The solution is a reusable bag. A wicker basket. Anything else that is grown without pesticides and biodegrades. As we've said before.

One day, when there are no more plastic bags ....

We can dream, can't we?

The truth is the plastic bags already in existence in landfills and clogging up waterways are not going to go away. (Think "incredibly long half-life".)

What Next?

Popping out of the office to buy lunch? Bring your own bag.

Wet swimwear at the pool? Don't reach out for another plastic bag provided by your gym. Bring your own bag. Re-use the one you took last week.

We train our brains to do many things: Check that windows are closed before you leave the house empty. Make sure you have a key to get back in. For many of us: has the burglar alarm been set?

Is the mobile phone where it should be?

What about a bag? Is there one squashed up in one's pocket or handbag just in case one decided that one needs a pint of milk or a loaf of bread, or both?

I say: Opt for an organic cotton string bag which you could squash into your pocket. But only because I am biased and  I have lots of these to sell!

But do tell us what you think about this issue here.

14th November 2007: The shop which has already set out its stall to get rid of packaging (The Independent) -- This was nearly exactly what 'provision shops' in Singapore were like when I was growing up. Rice, beans, and stuff like that were in huge jute sacks. The store assistants measured out whatever amounts we requested and these were put into old newspapers that had been folded into triangles which then transform into a cone. The loose ends were expertly tucked into the folds and the goods were taken home safely in a reusable bag or basket. And not a plastic bag in sight.

18th January 2008: Christmas was not too long ago. "Joy to the World"? China made a surprising announcement a few days ago: China boosts global war against menace of the plastic bag (The Guardian). But of course the plastic bag manufacturers are not too happy, calling this move "misguided".

5th February 2008: The world's rubbish dump: a garbage tip that stretches from Hawaii to Japan (The Independent)

*8th March 2008: Series of blunders turned the plastic bag into global villain (TimesOnline). "Blunder" this figure might be, but the impact of plastic bags on marine animals is still an issue.

2nd June 2008: China struggles to enforce ban on plastic bags (TimesOnline). Why am I not surprised?

22nd June 2009: Biodegradable plastic bags carry more ecological harm than good (Guardian.co.uk).