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Is it right to celebrate RECYCLE over REUSE when it comes to our shopping bags?

Boots has become the latest high-street giant to be celebrated for their pledge to phase out all plastic bags and switch to paper alternatives by the year 2020. The Guardian reports that the shift will remove over 40 million plastic bags from stores – each year! Earlier in the year, supermarket giant Morrisons also hit the news for their introduction of paper bags alongside their plastic version. While a recyclable alternative to plastic is considered a positive move by large companies that carry real influence, we are left to consider:


What’s the problem?

Plastic bags have a bad reputation and for just cause. You don’t need us to tell you the detrimental effects of plastic – it’s widely reported. Just knowing that a plastic bag can take up to 1000 years to decompose, while the materials and energy consumption during production heavily contribute to the destruction of the natural world and can prove fatal for some species (all for an estimated 20 minutes use), should be enough to make you think twice.

Boots’ sudden shift from plastic to paper is suspected to be a reaction following public outcry when their prescription service recently switched from paper to plastic packaging, with the firm replying to that, ‘plastic is ‘more durable’ and helps secure patient data.’ Continuing that the move was, ‘only temporary until they could find ‘alternative packaging options.’

While it’s still not known if paper bags will also return for their prescription service, what we do know is that the switch to paper should still be causing consumers concern.

Why aren’t paper bags the solution?

Let’s consider that some ethical shoppers will reuse their paper bags for carrying products or by finding an alternative use (some ethical Facebook users have commented on today’s news saying they can make use of paper bags to house composting), a study by the Environment Agency revealed a paper bag needs to be reused at least three times in order to make it more environmentally friendly than its single-use counterpart.

The question on our lips is, will people choose to reuse? Even if a paper bag requires the fewest reuses there is a practical consideration: will it last long enough to survive at least three trips to the supermarket? Are these bags simply destined to be headed straight for the recycling pile?

BBC News succinctly summarise the key questions we, as conscious consumers, should be considering about the use of paper bags:
how much energy is used to make the bag during manufacturing?
how durable is the bag? (i.e. how many times can it be reused?)
how easy is it to recycle?
how quickly does it decompose if thrown away?

According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, the paper industry is considered to be one of the 10 most polluting industries: paper bags have a much higher global warming potential while the manufacture of paper bags is much more resource intensive than plastic consuming larger amounts of energy and water.

What do you think?

Louise Edge, the head of Greenpeace UK’s ocean plastics campaign, comments in The Guardian, “It’s great to see a major high street brand like Boots listening to public concerns and ditching plastic bags but retailers need to be careful that by swapping plastic for paper they don’t end up shifting the problem from our oceans to our forests. This is why as well as looking for new materials for their carrier bags, high street chains should also encourage their customers to bring their own reusable bags and truly tackle the throwaway culture that’s damaging our living world.”

Facebook user, Janet, part of the 33,000 member strong group ‘Journey to Zero-Waste’ agrees that we should be encouraging reuse, she comments: “I’m 63. When I was a child, everyone took their own sturdy shopping bags when grocery shopping. For unplanned purchases, my mum and her friends kept a string bag in their handbags. Some enterprising mums even used to make these bags and sell them at the school gate. Maybe it’s time that flimsy plastic and paper carrier bags were banned and that the only bags available to purchase in the store were the more expensive, sturdier bags. I’m sure that after the initial confusion, people would no longer forget to bring their bags. Myself included!”

Margaret Bates, professor of sustainable waste management at Northampton University, believes, ‘The key to reducing the impact of all carrier bags – no matter what they are made of – is to reuse them as much as possible.’


What do you think? Is our culture celebrating recycle over reuse? Have your say in the comments below.

BBC News: Plastic or paper: Which bag is greener?

The Guardian: Boots to ban plastic bags and switch to brown paper carriers

The Metro: Boots customer ‘angry’ after receiving prescription in plastic bag, not paper

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