Monday, 23 August 2010

5 surprising facts about plastic bags

They are ugly, look cheap, can be irritatingly noisy; they make your palms sweaty.
Few self-respecting ethical shoppers would agree to be seen carrying one at their local, low-carbon, organic farmers’ market.
Yet, the reviled plastic carrier bags may be the victim of an unjustified hate campaign.
Here's why:

a new garbage patch has now also been found in the Atlantic.
photo: Greenpeace
Fact 1: plastic bags are no worse than their saintly paper counterpart.
Even though a plastic bag takes up to 1000 years to decompose, producing the paper alternative is more harmful to the environment.
Consider the energy, fuel, machinery and waste management involved in creating a paper bag: plant trees; log and transport trees; process cellulose into paper.
Comparatively, manufacturing the synthetic polymers used in plastic bags consume less energy. You may argue that, as a by-product of oil, plastic is leaving more damage behind. But then I invite you to see Fact2 below.
Of course, there is a big difference when it comes to disposing of them: you can easily recycle or even compost paper, while plastic is not biodegradable, so even after those 1000 years decomposing, all you get are lots of much smaller bits that go on to contaminate soil and oceans, making their toxic way into the food chain.
Looking at their entire lifecycles, though, both types of carriers have equivalent environmental impact.

Fact 2: not all plastic comes from petrol.
Bio-resin alternatives to the oil-based plastic are already commercially available. Corn, wheat, potatoes and soya are some of the raw materials being transformed into plastic, with corn-based shopping bags beginning to be marketed heavily in America. We’re not quite there yet as to seeing them at Sainsbury's, but it's a step into welcoming back the disgraced bags into respectable families' homes.

Fact 3: there is little point in adding your used plastic bags to the recycling bin.
Even if you’re evangelical about separating your rubbish, chances are your local recycling scheme does not accept anything plastic. This is because it is a difficult material to recycle: contamination rates are high, as plastic often has been in contact with food. Separating and transporting the various types of plastic can be tricky and expensive.
You can end up making your recycling pile unusable because of that bit of plastic added with the most innocent of intentions.
The best you can do with your old plastic bags is find a new life for them. Most supermarkets have drop off stations you can return them to. I’ve also added some clever suggestions here:

Crafty facts 5: following the somehow irritating trend for tote bags (if it’s the environment you care about, do you really need 10 different totes and are you seriously bidding £200 for Anya Hindmarch’s I’m Not a Plastic Bag?), tutorials on how to crochet supermarket carriers into almost anything abound on the web.
I like these ones best:

50's dress from the wonderful .
Oh, to be talented with a needle!

Raincoat entirely made of recycled bags. On sale by PenFelt on Etsy, where you can also find a handy tutorial.

I can feel my green crafty fingers twitching already!

Fact 5: cutting down the use of supermarket-issued plastic bags isn't the best way to green-up your shopping.
Supermarkets have been falling over each other to make ever louder announcements on just how much they’re cutting down on the use of bags. The self-checkout at M&S makes me feel like a criminal when it asks accusingly: USING OWN BAG? A lot of the big retailers now charge for handing out what effectively are big walking advertisements for them. I dislike this practice a lot and compare its lack of long term benefits to those of the congestion charge. Studies have suggested that, as younger consumers grow up and start making their own decisions, they automatically compute these charges into their shopping/driving costs and are less likely to reduce their bag/miles consumption.
Also, if bags used to be free and now I'm paying for them, where is this money going? I'd like to see the savings made by supermarkets reflected in cheaper prices on my trolley.
If you really want to lower the footprints left behind by your grocery shopping, arranging a weekly delivery may be a more effective solution. Add to the benefits of online shopping the lack of queues and screaming children, and it really is a no brainer.

Plastic bag pollution is a serious matter and responds to 6% of marine sediment. We're all familiar with the Pacific - and recently found Atlantic - trash vortex. But there are ways of producing and recycling more environmentally-friendly, equally sturdy plastic bags. The answers don't necessarily lie in shaming forgetful shoppers who forget to bring their organic hemp string carriers or in queuing for the latest It SmugBag.

I'll leave you with this fascinating mockumentary on the life of a very controversial polyethylene creature.

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