A single plastic bag can take up 500 years or more to degrade (Measuring biodegradability, ScienceLearn.org). In 2013, the major supermarkets in England gave out over 7.4 billion plastic bags – that’s 133 bags for every person.
Don’t get me wrong, plastic bags are very useful. I just went to buy some fruits and veg which I carried in a fabric bag in my backpack only to arrive home and find my pears all squashed making a whole mess!
If they had been in a plastic bag, the damage would have been limited!
So what alternatives can we find (or think of)?
1) Compostable / Biodegradable / “100% Compostable Plastics?
Biodegradable plastic is plastic that decomposes naturally into the environment. Micro-organisms, temperature, and humidity are the three factors that play a part in that process.
NOTE: Biodegradable plastics are not necessarily made from bio-material (i.e. plants).
Several biodegradable plastics are made from oil in the same way as conventional plastics.
Recent published articles are saying that biodegradable plastic is arguably worse than synthesis plastic. The rate of biodegradation depends temperature, micro-organisms and humidity. Some plastics labelled as ‘biodegradable’ require conditions that only exist in industrial composting units. For example, some biodegradable plastic need to be exposed to temperatures above 50°C for a long period of time to be completely broken down. (ref: http://www.unep.org/gpa/documents/publications/BiodegradablePlastics.pdf)
Cheryl Long and her team at Mother Earth News tested the biodegradability of some of these bioplastics in home composting environment over the course of 25 weeks. Interestingly they found that one one showed started to disintegrate.
NOTE – this experiment was done back in 2010. A lot of research and development has been made in that field since so it would be interesting to recreate a similar experiment with newer/more recent compostable plastics. (Although the UNEP document “Biodegradable Plastics & Marine Litter” published in 2015 raises similar persistent issues)
Maybe there is a difference to be made between ‘plastics’ that are purely bio-material – if such a thing exists- and all other.
2) Paper Bags
Before doing some research for this post I thought paper bags was the answer… I was rather shocked, upset and deflated by what I found!
“Making paper bags uses four times as much energy, creates 50 times more water pollution AND 70% more air pollution than plastic bags. They are also rarely used more than once.”
So clearly not the answer!
3) Cotton/Fabric Bags
This one did not come as much as a surprise…
Making long-lasting bags from cotton/jute and suchlike also comes with environmental penalties. Cotton isn’t the nice innocent “green” product that people think it is. Massive amounts of water and polluting pesticides are used growing cotton, while the energy used in making and shipping woven bags is also vastly higher.
4) Reuse Cardboard Packaging?
Instead of recycling cardboard stores and super markets could make their hefty supply of cardboard packaging and boxes available to customers to pack their groceries in and transport to their car.
Upcycling is the process of taking something old and worn and turning it into something new. This method reduces brings life back into an item - and reduces the need of making or purchasing something brand new!