Making a difference – packaging and bags

Use multi-use cloth bags for shopping

I’m about to annoy many people and provoke a flurry of correspondence from the amateur statisticans and pedants by suggesting ways of reducing over-consumption, reducing individual environmental footprints and making an individual contribution to treating producers and works more fairly.

I’ve generally steered clear of making direct suggestions to date, preferring to show what we do and why without saying “do this”, “do that”.

However, I get frequent emails, comments and forum messages from people asking what they should do, asking for more direction, and asking how they can make a difference.

I tend to reply along the lines of “do your own research, think about what you want to achieve, decide your own balance between pragmatism and idealism, and then act”.

At the same time, I’m aware that many people not only can’t be bothered to do this, but they also want a very simple “do X” but “don’t do Y” approach.

The result is that I get jibes about not being prepared to help other people or that I don’t really want to make a difference, instead preferring to show that I’m “better” by standing out from the crowd.

Well, I’ve decided to make some direct suggestions, although I will not be over-simplifying the issues and decisions. If you don’t like, tough.

It’s always better to be condemned for doing something, than to watch things slide through doing nothing.

The first thing I’m going to suggest is rejecting plastic carrier bags, seeking alternatives to unnecessary or excessive plastic packaging and wrapping, and using much less non-reusable plastic for food storage and rubbish disposal.

Wasting less plastic should be an obvious and easy decision to arrive at, if less easy to put into practice in some areas.

Almost all packaging plastics are made from oil, a non-renewable and finite resource.

Almost all oil-based plastics linger in the environment for centuries, killing wildlife directly and contaminating land, fresh water and the oceans as they are broken into smaller, toxic particles.

And until relatively recently, we managed quite well without wrapping everything in layers of plastic.

Bread and produce bags were only introduced in 1966.

Low density polyethylene ‘boutique’ or merchandise bags, the kind used mostly in department stores and boutiques, started to appear from 1973 when the first commercial system for manufacturing plastic grocery bags went operational.

High density polyethylene bags, the crinkly kind used mostly by supermarkets plastic grocery bag were introduced in 1977.

But despite that, most people are firmly convinced plastic bags and packaging is necessary for hygiene, strength, versatility, water resistance and even because it’s allegedly more environmentally friendly than paper alternatives.

Even some committed greens will argue in favour of re-using and recycling plastic bags, spouting forth on blogs and in forums along the lines of:

  • Paper and cloth bags are heavier and take up more space than plastic carriers, so more fuel is used to transport them than plastic carrier bags.
  • Plastic bags are cleaner and more hygienic than paper or cloth bags.
  • Plastic bags and packaging is not a problem in landfill as plastic is stable, does not decompose and is only a small proportion by weight of total rubbish.
  • Plastic bags and packaging are only a very small proportion of street litter in the UK.
  • Only two per cent of oil is used for making plastic films, which is negligible compared to transport.
  • Carrier bags are reused around the house, for things like bin liners.
  • Carrier bags can be recycled.

And so on.

These facts are constantly regurgitated as reasons for the continued use of plastic carrier bags and packaging, which turn out to be not only clean and convenient but good for the environment as well.

What nobody admits is that these “facts” are in fact disseminated by lobby groups for the plastic packaging industry.

And as with everything, these is often a huge gulf between “facts” and “truth”, with multiple versions of the latter often arising from one set of the former.

My truth is that while plastic bags may be lighter individually, if you get new ones each time you shop then they’re quickly going to add up to more weight and more transport than a reuseable paper or cloth bag.

Plastic bags may be made in clean factories, but how much food do you actually carry loose in a bag anyway? If meats are wrapped in plastic (or paper for cooked meats), if loose produce is in paper bags, and if everything else is in plastic, glass, tins or paper, then what’s the issue?

Besides, if your cloth bag gets dirty, then surely it can go in the washing machine?

Of course plastics don’t degrade. That’s why they’re a problem – they persist in the environment for at least a hundred years and probably longer.

Plastics may not be a street litter problem in the UK (then again, they may be but because councils collect them no one notices), but they are globally. Plastics kill wildlife and livestock, choke waterways and the ocean, and carry toxic chemicals with them.

It sounds innocuous when you’re told just two per cent of oil European oil consumption is used to make plastic film.

But when you realise that plastic film production amounts to 293,600 barrels (46.7 million litres) of oil a day in the EU alone, you suddenly grasp just how much oil is being used on a one or two-use item that we’re just going to throw away. (Figures calculated from EU daily oil consumption.)

Of course other areas of oil production need to be targeted and reduced, but to ignore a significant consumer whose end product rapidly ends up as waste is daft.

It may sound good to say that plastic carrier bags are re-used around the house, but the very simple fact is that they still end up in landfill – especially when used as bin liners.

If they’re being used as bin liners, then they can’t also be sent for recycling.

And just because they’re capable of being recycled, doesn’t mean they are. In fact, the very lightness of the plastic carrier bags counts against economically when considering whether they’re cost effective to recycle or not.

It’s more efficient and cost effective to recycle a dense, heavy material like cardboard or even glass than carrier bags.

To my way of thinking, it’s much more sensible to use reuseable cotton, jute or hemp bags for carrying groceries than to waste oil and produce a problem that needs solving – disposing of the bags.

It’s more sensible to use paper to wrap many food items that don’t actually need to be wrapped in plastic – why are lentils, dried beans, oatmeal and the like wrapped in plastic while flour is not? Why are fruit and vegetables wrapped in plastic film?

Yes, the cloth and paper needs to be sourced sustainably.

Yes, the workers making the bags need to get a fair wage and a good working environment.

Yes, there needs to be a commitment by the user to good hygiene during the bag’s working life and to environmentally friendly disposal at the end of it.

Are those things so difficult to achieve that we should simply continue to waste oil on a product that ends up polluting the environment on which we all depend?

I think not, so I use canvas bags and try to minimise my purchases of products that are unnecessarily or wastefully wrapped in plastic.

Can you do the same?

2 Responses to “Making a difference – packaging and bags”

  1. I must’ve missed seeing this posting before, else I’d have certainly commented – I’m with you on this one…

    Incidentally Tesco will now sell you a recyclable (jute I think) shopping bag for a quid and give you two clubcard points (equating to 2p back) every time you use it…(though as it’s only what you overpay them somewhere else this aspect isn’t quite as much a benevolent gesture as it might otherwise seem), and whilst I’m generally chary of the supermarkets, this does seem to be a worthwhile idea – we’ve bought about ten and use them nearly all the time (I say nearly because occasionally we do forget)…they’re certainly a nice sturdy bag and I think they’ll be good for a few years…

  2. I wonder where Tesco source their bags from? A Chinese sweatshop using cheap, pesticide heavy jute? It’s better than plastic, but…

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