Throw-away plastic bag FAQs
Why pick on plastic bags?
· Some plastic packaging is probably inevitable, but we can manage quite well without plastic shopping bags with alternatives such as hessian or cotton “bags for life”. Campaigners pick on them because they are so easy to do without, and because we hope that thinking about plastic bag waste will encourage people to think about reducing other plastic and packaging waste.
· Plastic bags do not biodegrade, they photodegrade – breaking down into smaller and smaller toxic bits, contaminating soil, waterways, oceans and entering the food chain when ingested by animals. In the marine environment plastic bag litter is lethal, causing severe pain and distress, and killing at least 100,000 birds, whales, seals and turtles every year. After an animal is killed by plastic bags, its body decomposes and the plastic is released back into the environment where it can kill again.
· At the moment the world uses over 1.2 trillion plastic bags a year, which comes to around 300 bags for each adult on the planet per year, and over one million bags being used per minute. More than 17 billion are handed out in Britain every year.
· Plastic bags become unsightly litter. On average we use each plastic bag for about 12 minutes before disposal. 47% of wind-borne litter escaping from landfills is plastic and much of this is plastic bags, which can last in the environment for decades. We see plastic bags littering our neighbourhoods all the time.
· Plastic bags are an oil-based product, made from a non-renewable and declining resource. The Scottish Executive recently calculated that the oil used to manufacture 8 plastic carrier bags would power an average car for 1 kilometre – if we all gave up plastic bags we could save enough oil to drive 2,125,000,000 kilometres.
· It has been estimated that reducing the number of plastic bags in the UK by just 25% would eliminate 58,500 tonnes of carbon dioxide a year - the equivalent of taking 18,000 cars off the road.
· Plastic bags aren't really free - we pay for them in our shopping and if shops stopped giving them away they could pass on their savings to us, as sometimes they do, e g in extra Nectar points.
What about paper bags?
· Paper bags are not weatherproof and are rarely re-used.
· Paper bags are mostly made from wood pulp - that means chopping down trees.
· Even recycled paper bags have environmental costs during their manufacture.
· Paper bags weigh more than plastic bags and, when disposed of, add to the bulk and weight of rubbish that has to be dumped or recycled.
· Long-life shopping bags are the best solution.
See http://www.shrinkpaper.org/index.shtml for more about the damage our over-use of paper products does to the environment.
Why jute (also known as hessian) or cotton and not plastic "bags for life"?
· Jute and cotton bags are made from renewable resources. Many are organically and ethically produced.
· Jute and cotton bags come in all sizes and shapes, are stronger and more comfortable to carry than plastic carrier bags, and they can be printed in any design or colour.
· Heavyweight plastic "bags for life" don't in fact last for life, and when they wear out they end up in landfill. They have 10 times more plastic in them than ordinary plastic bags.
· Jute and cotton bags don’t last for life either, but they do last a long time and, when they eventually wear out, cotton can be recycled and jute biodegrades.
· However, if you have a perfectly good long-life bag at home, even if is made of plastic, it makes sense to carry and use it rather than buying a new one.
Why not “biodegradable” plastic bags?
· Biodegradable plastic bags also have environmental costs during their manufacture, and although they can break up (degrade) over a lengthy period they still leave toxic residues in soil and water. And conditions have to be right for a bag to biodegrade well; conditions are generally not ideal in bins, landfill sites, rivers or the sea. It can take years for bags to biodegrade in a landfill, and until they do biodegradable plastic bags remain unsightly and dangerous to wildlife.
· Biodegradable plastic bags do not last very long and when they are disposed of can get mixed up with ordinary plastic bags and contaminate plastic that could have been recycled.
· There are different kinds of biodegradable plastics and “compostable plastic” bags are better. They break down to carbon dioxide, water, inorganic compounds, and biomass, like other compostable materials, and leave no toxic residue. The resulting humus is a safe and healthy contribution to soil. However, you do have to remember to compost them, and should not get them mixed up with other plastic waste.
· Re-use is still better than recycling or composting.
· See also the WRAP fact sheet in our Useful Information section
What will I do with my rubbish without plastic bags to put it in?- Biodegradable bin-liners are better than plastic bags as they will eventually bio-degrade along with the other rubbish. You can get starch-based ones made of corn or potato starch. (For example, Compost Caddy Bags , Compostable Kitchen Bin Liners, Compostable Refuse Sacks, Compostable Wheelie Bin Liners - see also Useful websites). Kingston council now provide these for food waste.
- But the jury is out on these (see http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2008/apr/26/waste.pollution); everything that decomposes produces methane, a greenhouse gas, so it's best to create as little waste and to use as few bin-liners (of any sort) etc as possible.
- Now that Kingston collects food waste separately, you may not need bin-liners for the rest of your (cleanish) waste. Modern wheelie bins are designed for unbagged waste to be thrown straight in. Waste paper bins don't need to be lined; in kitchens, or where waste is messier, newspaper could be used
- Long-term, we should all produce much less waste and need fewer rubbish bags to put it in.
- In any case, plastic bags aren't going to disappear from shops overnight so there's no immediate need to panic. We certainly don't need as many as we currently collect, even if we do use some for our rubbish.
What about when I forget my “bag for life”?In a true plastic-bag-free zone or town, you would have to buy another hessian or cotton “bag for life”. Try to make a habit of carrying a small string or cotton bag in your pocket or handbag so that you always have something to carry home impulse purchases.
Has anyone else banned plastic bags?· Modbury in South Devon was the first UK town to become plastic bag free, in 2007. In September 2007 Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire also became plastic bag free.
· Countries and states that have banned or taken action to discourage the use of plastic bags include: Australia, Bangladesh, Ireland, Italy, Taiwan, Mumbai (formerly Bombay, where they have been found to block drains and cause flooding), Scotland, France, West Bengal, Zanzibar, Tanzania. Even China has plans to ban the bag (see news item)
Where can we get jute or cotton bags for life?
Many shops in Kingston and elsewhere already stock them, but see also our Useful Links section.
What's the best alternative to plastic bags?
It depends very much on what you want and what aspect of sustainability you want to prioritise. Reusability rather than throwaway is probably the most important thing - but some of the toughest, longest-lasting fabrics are oil-based products. Biodegradability or recyclability are important too, but they have their own environmental problems and impacts. See the table at http://e-voice.org.uk/greenerkingston/files/view/Materials,_relative_merits.pdf and make your own choice.
What are plastic bags recycled into?
According to Sainsburys Customer Service department, most of the "150 million bags that are recycled through us... are turned into black plastic refuse sacks."
Plastic bags to plastic bags, possibly via China where much of this is done - maybe not so virtuous!
And John Lewis Partnership / Waitrose tell us: ”Carrier bags brought back are returned to Bracknell, one of Waitrose’s distribution centres, where they are sent for recycling in the UK along with other polythene generated at the distribution centre. The mixed plastic are converted into small pellets which are then melted down to make boards that are, for example, typically used as hoardings and for cable protection. Some of the material is also used in the production of outdoor furniture such as benches.”
From reusablebags.com, on the economics of recycling:"...For example, it costs $4,000 to process and recycle 1 ton of plastic bags, which can then be sold on the commodities market for $32." (Jared Blumenfeld, director of San Francisco's Department of the Environment as reported by Christian Science Monitor).