Apparently, reusable plastic bags are actually making the plastic crisis worse as supermarkets are dishing out more plastic and not less.
What’s happened is that supermarkets have started to hand out more bags for life, which are thicker, using more plastic to produce. They’re meant to be used repeatedly before being replaced, but the reality is that people forget to bring a reusable bag, buy a bag for life then just throw it away.
After the British government introduced a compulsory charge for plastic bags, the amount of plastic by volume given out by supermarkets went up. The top 8 grocery retailers in the UK sold 959 million bags for life in 2018, then it shot up to 1.5 billion in 2019. Iceland, for example, raised their sales ten-fold to 34 million in the same one year period.
As things stand, we just export this waste plastic to other countries who have fewer resources than we do to deal with it. Out of sight, out of mind, the saying goes.
There clearly just isn’t the incentive for people to stop using plastic bags once and bring their own. Either a plastic bag for life, or another type of re-usable bag. As you’ll imagine, not all re-usable bags were created equally. Usually made from polyethylene terephthalate or re-cycled polyethylene terephthalate, a bag for life would need to be re-used 8 times to have the same effect as a conventional plastic bag and 84 times to have less of a carbon impact on the environment than a regular plastic bag.
A solution to this problem could be to charge even more for plastic bags so people start remembering to bring their own bag. We all need to bring our bags back to the supermarket until they fall apart. When they do finally disintegrate, supermarkets will generally replace the bag for free, providing they are from the same chain.
We could assume that other types of bags like cotton might be better for the environment would be better, but they could actually be slightly less so than you would imagine at first. Cotton vs organic cotton bags are very different. A conventional cotton bag would need to be re-used 52 times to have an equal climate change impact to a plastic bag! To be less resource intensive to make than a regular plastic bag, an organic cotton bag would need to be re-used 20,000 times. Good job they’re really durable then.
Let’s resolve to bring our own bag to carry our groceries and re-use that bag many many times over.