Sunday, 1 April 2012

Plastic bags: it's not all about carbon

I recently read an article which discussed how we could tackle the problem of the 800,000 tonnes of plastic bags thrown away each year in Europe, an average of 191 for every citizen of the European Union.  It highlighted the much smaller carbon footprint of disposable single use plastic carrier bags compared with alternatives.  Part of the article described re-using plastic bags as bin liners rather than using purpose made bin liners and it had a nifty graphic .  To a point, this makes sense but considering that many people use plastic bags for almost all of their domestic purchases, then to use every carrier bag once as a bin liner would require all that was bought to be disposed of in the bin.  I know that there is a lot of waste packaging in groceries but it does generally compact down to a smaller volume than the original (unless you live entirely on tinned produce) therefore assuming that all plastic bags are re-used in this way is stretching things a bit.  To then hypothesise that they could be used three times as bin liners is clearly not relevant.

Further, using plastic bags as bin liners can be counterproductive when it comes to recycling.  I often see plastic bags full of recyclable materials (plastic bottles and cans) overflowing from recycling bins.  This may be convenient for the householder but causes problems with processing and separating the different materials, especially if the plastic bags themselves are not recycleable. Only 6% of plastic bags are recycled in the EU, which is a very small proportion compared with other plastics.  Most areas do not routinely recycle plastic bags and plastic films because of the difficulty in untangling from other wastes, separating contaminants and splitting into similar polymer types.

Finally, using the carbon footprint of plastic bags as a measure of how environmentally friendly they are is missing the point, which is that they are light and easily blown away by the wind from bins, landfill sites or where they have been carelessly disregarded and they do not subsequently break down naturally.  As illustrated in the photograph above, they are unsightly, hazardous to wildlife and domesticated animals then when sunlight or mechanical processes do eventually embrittle them, they crumble into small pieces of plastic just right for ingestion by fish, birds and other creatures, then on into the human food chain.

Of course, if all bags are bad the easy answer is that we just stop buying stuff.

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  1. Excellent post and you're so right. The carbon footprint isn't the only issue. Paper bags biodegrade! And reusable fabric carrier bags (and produce bags)last for ages, much longer than the 50 or so times use that means their carbon footprint per use is reduced to that of plastic bags.

  2. Great stuff EcoWarriorMe,

    Olivia and Carter agree with you and here in the states they travel the country and teach elementary students a weeklong Plastic Awareness curriculum designed to get kids early so they can start being the solution to plastic pollution. Check some of their work and let us know what you think:

    Also, check out their Plastic Awareness Coalition and all the organizations who have joined on:

    Thanks again for your article and for caring.

    Best regards from the entire OMG Team ;-)


    1. Thanks for your comments and links. I think it is fantastic that the children are getting involved. As most parents know "pester power" is a skill that children are very effective at using - if we can harness it to change their parent's plastic bag habits rather than going to McDonalds we can take a big step in the right direction.

  3. It may be true that a single plastic bag's carbon footprint is small but, the environmental destruction caused by plastic bags (even one) is HUGE. And I don't think there is anyone who would say that our problems are about one bag. So ... I agree with you ... they are missing the point. I also agree that perhaps "not buying" is a necessary strategy! Thanks, as always, for a wonderful, thought-provoking post!

    1. Thanks for your comments and also for tweeting the link.

  4. Good point. Carbon definitely isn't the only thing in the equation (though I feel like I should point out that reusable bags, if not used quite a few times, remain higher impact -- I really should try to redistribute my stash so it all gets used). Most of our trash cans don't actually need to be lined. We do continue to use a liner for our kitchen wet waste, but since we can't seem to get the bloody newspaper company to stop delivering the paper to us in a plastic bag, we're set for a long, long time. Eventually we hope to be composting all of that wet trash, and then we won't need plastic bags at all! Found you via Small Footprints, by the way!

    1. Thanks for your comments. If we are replacing thin disposable plastic bags with the heavier re-usable plastic bags I think we should be aware of the relative carbon footprint, as both are derived from oil and have the same problem with not degrading although the lighter bags are more prone to being carried by the wind and dispersed. If we are comparing with fabric bags, for example, the carbon footprint is less of an issue as we are reducing the pollution legacy.

  5. Hi from the meet and greet!

    Disposable plastic carrier bags are one of my biggest bugbears. Such tiny things but many of us fail to see the bigger picture of what they are about.

    The most absurd idea to me is using oil that may have taken thousands of years to produce, turning it into a bag we use for five minutes before tossing that bag into landfill where it make take another few hundred years to break down (if it ever does).

    We gave them up in 2008 and it was a significant step towards reducing our overall landfill waste because once we'd successfully done this small action we thought "What can I do next..." and before you know it, we've accumulated just one dustbin of waste for the entire year.

    From little acorns and all that ...

    Lovely blog, great content - really pleased to meet you :)

    Rae aka mrsgreen @

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