The battle of the bags

I have been seeing a lot recently about the relative merits of paper vs plastic. Having been alerted to the huge issues with plastic pollution, the general public seems to be convinced that wholesale conversion to paper or cardboard packaging is the answer. Purely from the perspective of end-of-life disposal, this is a perfectly logical switch because paper is biodegradable and plastic isn’t. But life isn’t really that simple, is it?

There are various studies which show that the carbon footprint of a plastic bag is way smaller than a paper bag, For example, a report published by the UK Environment Agency in 2011 examined a variety of types os shopping bags:

• a conventional, lightweight carrier made from high-density polyethylene (HDPE)

• a paper carrier;

• a “bag for life” made from low-density polyethylene (LDPE);

• a heavier more durable bag, often with stiffening inserts made from non woven polypropylene (PP); and

• a cotton bag

And here is a summary of some of their results:2019-06-23Source: Environment Agency (2011) Life cycle assessment of supermarket carrier bags: a review of the bags available in 2006


Paper vs Cotton

As you can see, according to this data, you have to use a paper bag three times and a cotton bag 131 times for them to have the same ‘global warming potential’ as a ‘normal’ plastic carrier bag used just once. Of course, there are all sorts of complicating factors – if you make a cotton bag out of scraps rather than virgin fabric, then that’s an entirely different matter. Indeed, using waste fabric to make bags could probably be considered to have an overall positive impact on the environment rather than a negative one. But what this does show, is that paper bags may not be the a great solution, and it doesn’t begin to take into consideration what a polluting process paper production can be (you can read about the environmental impact of paper here).

However, the data in the Environment Agency Report are a few years out of date and SNS (Nordic Forest Research) recently published a report outlining the climate benefits of forests. It turns out that actively growing young trees assimilate much more carbon than mature trees, so managed forests from which timber is extracted do more to reduce atmospheric carbon than old forests. There are other issues related to conservation and biodiversity, but the fact remains that it’s good to use wood.


Plastic or not?

Some of the manufacturers, processors and producers who need to use some form of packaging do seem to be exploring different options. After all, there are all sorts of materials available and new technology is delivering various solutions with, apparently, better environmental credentials. For example, for a while now I’ve been buying my coffee from a small company that supports small producers and uses no plastic in their packaging. Last month, however, the coffee arrived not in a paper pack, but in something that looked like plastic. Why? Well, The Roasting House explained their change as follows:

Those of you who have ground coffee will have been receiving the Natureflex packaging for a while now but if you have whole bean it may come as a shock when you get the package so first of all I want to reassure you that it’s no plastic!

We use Natureflex for our ground coffee as it preserves the oils in the coffee and keeps it fresher. The whole bean coffee doesn’t lose freshness as quickly so we’ve sent it in paper for a while for you to transfer to your own air tight container. However we’re starting to move more towards using the Natureflex and less paper in our sister business Plastic Free Pantry. It provides a good air and moisture barrier and is less prone to breakages. But crucially it has a lower carbon impact than paper. The carbon impact of production for the unlined type of Natureflex that we use is lower than plastic, and the manufacturers then use off-setting to make it carbon neutral.

It is compostable in home conditions and will break down in soil and marine environments (although obviously don’t chuck it in the sea or litter it!). If you have a compost bin, it will break down in 12-16 weeks. Alternatively you can shred it and bury it in your garden. If you can’t compost it yourself, you can return it to us for refilling or composting.

So, it turns out that doing the right thing is complicated and that avoiding one problem (e.g. plastic pollution) can lead to another (e.g. carbon dioxide emissions). What we really need is institutional change in terms of reducing the use of ALL resources and I encourage you to lobby manufacturers, retailers and politicians to this end, but it’s also good to take personal responsibility, so reuse what you already have (whatever it’s made of) and REFUSE grocery/produce bags wherever possible.


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  1. Complicated is right. I would also wager that most people with canvas bags use them for many more things than just going to the grocery store. For example, we have a huge canvas bag i bought about 15 years ago. Not only do I use this bag a couple of times a week for groceries, but I also use it when we go to to shows for our books. To potlucks. To stores other than grocery shopping. You get the idea. We use this bag all the time, and the same is true for other bags we have. Doesn’t take long to reach 131 times with such use. I would guess a year, perhaps a little more.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That is so true… we have lots of canvas bags and they are incredibly useful, plus they can be washed if they get grubby, so that even if they were used for potatoes on one shopping trip, it doesn’t mean they can’t hold library books on the next trip out..

      Liked by 3 people

  2. I wonder what my willow shopping basket looks like on your graph… I like a nice basket and have several, including the large flexible kind made from rush or grass. And I also wonder how much energy and water it takes to produce NatureFlex, even if it is made from cellulose…


    • I looked at the Natureflex web site and they are a bit cagey, but it is, apparently, made from “wood”. It’s often the way – most manufacturers don’t give specifics!
      I have had my willow baskets for decades… in fact one of them belonged to my grandmother, so I suspect its environmental impact is zero. I must get round to making a few more draw-string produce bags from old net curtains… again, probably zero impact as they are always made from scraps.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. I just wish, for one part of our world, there was one simple answer . . .


  4. Thsnk you for laying it out so well for us.
    Scrap Happy tote bags seem to be a viable way forward, I’ll add them to my ever increasing list of things to do.


  5. Ann Pole

     /  June 25, 2019

    Yup, sure is a mine field. Then there is Whiskers pouches fuzzy butt will eat, but are in non-recyclable plastic, or tins that after 1 meal she wont eat, resulting in waste. OK, I did eventually get the whole tin down her, but it took over a week. Biscuits are in cardboard, so reading your blog here, are not always the best solution.
    Answers on a post card please… (no, wait, they are card too!!)


  6. I’ve been using two canvas and metal bags for shopping/everything for about 15 years now. The bags collapse flat but have a metal (aluminium?) skeleton that holds them in shape when in use. After all this time they are still as good as new. They were purchased for next to nothing back in the day when baskets or reusable bags weren’t that trendy and I think they have been worth their weight in gold. I get constant comments about them when in public and wonder why there aren’t more about. I also have an array of cotton totes, some kind of polythene or nylon shopping totes and cheaper canvas totes – all very handy for different things, but I love my sturdy baskets best. Over the last year I’ve also noted that most all of my online purchases are arriving in compostable ‘plastic’ which I don’t know that much about, but am glad to receive.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. It’s good to see that the cotton bag isn’t as damaging as I’d been lead to believe from other sources. I’ve been using my trusted cotton bag almost every day for 6 years bur I had read that it would need to be used over 7000 times to be equal to a plastic bag used once.


  8. My city has recently banned all plastic bags from stores which I find a bit much. Rather than charging people for each bag to try to reduce the use of the bags (as many stores in Europe do), the city simply banned them altogether.

    I understand the point, but what happens when someone is purchasing something wet such as lettuce or a frozen item and they’ve forgotten their canvas sack from home? And many many people reuse their plastic bags several times for various things around the house or for packing shoes for vacation.

    What’s worse, is the city forced businesses (and the local library) to THROW OUT the bags they already had rather than saying, “Use up your stock and then no more.” Ridiculous and kind of going against the whole point of reducing waste.


    • I’m afraid that there is rather a lot of idiocy when it comes to things like this… hearing about things being thrown out makes me so cross. Here in Wales shops can’t give out free plastic carrier bags and that has made a huge difference whilst still allowing for situations like you mention.

      Liked by 1 person


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