When we hear someone say, “why don’t they just switch to paper bags?” we sigh.

It’s a classic example we like to use when talking about the importance of making the right changes. One that is genuinely better environmentally as opposed to another that simply seems like it should be.

According to the UK Government, we used over 7.6 billion ‘single use’ plastic carrier bags nationally in 2014. Or approximately 140 bags per person, equating to over 60,000 tonnes of plastic. That same year, the number of plastic bags being used in UK supermarkets had increased for the fifth consecutive year.

That led to the introduction of a 5p charge for plastic carrier bags in England, with charges already in place across the rest of the UK.

Since the introduction of this scheme, the Governments has reported an 80% drop in the number of plastic carrier bags being used in the UK. That’s 15 billion plastic carrier bags not potentially floating around in the ocean (perhaps for centuries) or being placed in landfill (where they may take almost as long to break down).

Fast forward to 2019 and a move to double that 5p charge to 10p.

It is clear that we must all make every effort to continue to significantly reduce the number of bags we use, whatever they are made of so we welcome this increase and support the reasons for it.

With several high profile brands, from Boots to Morrisons, making a fanfare over introducing paper bags in stores, attracting a wealth of media attention, it’s easier for consumers to wrongly assume that this is a positive move.

On the day that Boots (owned by US parent Walgreen Boots Alliance) made this announcement we appeared on BBC Radio Berkshire to discuss the issue.

Our criticisms of Boots at the time included the fact that (to begin with at least) paper bags were to be offered alongside plastic ones, while the switch would initially only affect around 5% of the company’s stores. Boots were also set to charge customers for the bags, to cover their costs (profits being donated to charity), despite not being required to by law (stores only have to charge for plastic bags).

We argued that if they firmly believed that this was the right move to make, and were doing it for that reason rather than the profile gained from it, Boots would commit to the switch more wholeheartedly. Also, if you walk around any Boots store (like most retailers), it’s clear that tackling the plastic bag issue doesn’t even scratch the surface environmentally when it comes to their products – both what they’re packaged in and what’s inside them.

Let’s remind ourselves why paper bags are not the answer. Paper bags:

– at some stage came from a tree. Deforestation is a major problem facing our planet. We need trees and felling them removes the benefit they bring in terms of absorbing Carbon and providing habitats for wildlife.

– release more toxins (into our air and water) and use more energy (around four times) and water, in the production process. Those made from recycled paper face similar issues and may also contain the chemical BPA.

– are heavier and bulkier to transport, using more fossil fuels and contributing to higher emissions.

– may never find their way to a recycling bin (a large majority). Even if they do, they may be too damaged or stained to be able to be recycled. In landfill they have a greater mass and may release more methane and they do not break down much faster. Paper bags also use 91% more energy to recycle.

– may not quickly or easily break down in water due to the way some at least are manufactured.

– have a shorter life on average and are therefore more ‘single use’.

But don’t think that we’re pro plastic (our name is a hint…). From their environmentally damaging components – derived from natural gas and petroleum – to the fact they may still be here if and when our great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great grandchildren are walking on this planet (fingers crossed), are a disaster.

So what is the solution? Above all else, we advocate using the bags that you already have at home, whatever they are made from. Most of us have bags for life, cotton bags, or similar in a cupboard or car boot. Use them. To death!

And if and when it comes to buying a new bag or two, we’d recommend exploring those made from materials like Bamboo, Hemp, Juco and Jute (in that order). Note that we omitted cotton bags – due to the negative environmental impacts of cotton farming and production.

You can find us on Facebook by searching for Plastic Free Home or at http://www.facebook.com/plasticfreehomeuk.

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2 Comments

  1. Just to point out – trees used for most paper related products come from managed forests (not rain forests etc), and are usually ‘sustainable yield’, meaning that for every tree removed for manufacturing, one is planted in its place.

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    1. Not always. Otherwise the FSC kite mark wouldn’t be needed to differentiate. And planting a new tree is not a like for like replacement in terms of a tree’s environmental benefits.

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