Monday, 19 March 2012

Non 'resusable' plastic bags - facts or myths?

We didn't take any plastic bags with us to World Textile Day on Saturday. In Wales, shoppers have to pay retailers a minimum of 5p for a 'non reusable' bag and the retailer is supposed to donate that money to charity, and let the shopper know which charity too. This has led to all kinds of individual shop policies, from supermarkets which now just don't have any thin bags and insist on selling a plastic 'bag for life' instead to ultra small retailers like myself simply not bothering to have plastic bags at all - I sell at only a handful events during the year and it just didn't seem worth it. Reusing plastic bags from other retailers still incurs the 5p charge.

Several years ago, I did trial paper bags alongside plastic bags (when it was still legal to give them out 'free'). After all, the retailer has to pay for bags of any kind. Apart from quilters buying books, most people didn't want a paper bag, and now most bring a bag of their own to events, so I just stopped giving out bags at all. On Saturday, this did lead to the situation of customers having to carry their newly purchased vintage kimono just folded up in a bundle. I hope these made it home safely! Paper bags strong enough for kimono would actually have a bigger environmental footprint than thin plastic bags which do the job just as well... A lot of quilt shops now use paper takeaway bags with paper handles, which may be OK for a few fat quarters but aren't going to be much use for more than that - one I got last week barely made it from the trader's stall to the car, once it had 6+ metres of fabric in it!

It looks like the plastic bag debate is raging once again - see What should be done about plastic bags?

If shoppers stop using plastic bags, they must start using other kinds of bags, but there is no perfect solution. Stronger, heavier bags, whether made of fabric or plastic, have a bigger environmental impact than standard supermarket shopping bags.

Last year Britain's Environment Agency published a Life Cycle Assessment of Supermarket Carrier Bags, which concluded that long-life bags have to be reused a number of times if they are to be environmentally a better option than standard plastic carrier bags.

For instance, if a plastic bag is used just once, then a paper bag must be used three times to compensate for the larger amount of carbon used in manufacturing and transporting it, a plastic "bag for life" must be used four times, and a cotton bag must be used 131 times.

If a plastic bag is reused, of course, then its carbon-footprint-per-use decreases further - and the number of times the alternatives have to be used to match this low footprint is multiplied.

It seems there are many myths about plastic bag use and their environmental impact which have been repeated so many times they are now being trotted out as FACT. See this link -

In Wales, I now need to get hold of plastic bags somehow, as our main rubbish bin is only collected once a fortnight. The council's advice on how to keep the inside of the bin clean and smells to a minimum is to wrap our rubbish in... use plastic bags. If we don't use plastic bags, the bin needs washing out with disinfectant weekly during the warmer summer months, which certainly is NOT good for the environment, as the only way to get rid of the water is into the surface water drain - you can't pour from a wheelie bin into the kitchen sink! This means I have to buy bin liners, when previously any thin plastic bags eventually got used as binliners. I save any plastic bags I'm given in England or Scotland and use those when I'm back in Wales. However, it shows how it is almost impossible to get rid of plastic bags!

I wonder what the solution will be, or even if there is one? As fewer plastic bags are used from the supermarket, the amount of plastic use in their packaging seems to increase...

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