Reusable bags

Last updated Monday 21 July 2008

Eco-shoppers know material matters

War has been declared on the plastic carrier bag. Bringing your own bag instead will help, but will it really make you a climate hero?

The average Brit takes home 290 plastic carrier bags a year, and most of us have a drawer or cupboard stuffed with them. Unsightly when blowing down the street or wrapped in trees, these bags are positively lethal for wildlife. They kill more than 100,000 marine mammals a year, including sea turtles, which mistake them for jellyfish.

In CO2 terms, on the other hand, their impact is less pronounced. In fact, one study suggested that a tax on plastic bags might simply increase the amount of plastic bin liners we use.

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Photo: Reusable bags

Saves up to 5kg of CO2 a year

1368 Bloomers are doing this

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Popularity 5 out of 5

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How will it make a difference?

Pub Fact

  • Last year, major retailers agreed to reduce plastic bags by a quarter, but the schemes only managed a 7% reduction
  • A transatlantic flight from Heathrow to New York emits the same amount of CO2 as it does producing over 70,000 plastic carrier bags
  • Plastic bags ranked 15 in the top 20 most common litter items recorded during Beachwatch 2006
  • In a recent BBC web poll, 58% of people wanted a nation-wide ban on free throw-away shopping bags
  • In around 31 seconds we each produce the same amount of CO2 as one plastic bag produces when it was manufactured
  • Sainsbury's supermarkets plan to launch clothing range made entirely from waste plastic - it will feel like viscose or polyester
  • A minke whale washed up from the English channel was found with almost a kilo of plastic bags in her stomach. She had eaten them and starved to death
  • A soup of plastic bags possibly twice the size of the USA floats in the seas around Japan, containing 100 million tons of flotsam
  • Modbury in Devon was Britain's first plastic bag free town
  • Ireland went plastic bag free in 2002
  • 23% of all plastic bags used in the UK are from Tescos

The days of the plastic bag appear numbered - the town of Modbury in Devon has banned them, Ireland started to tax them in 2002, producing a 70% drop in usage, and in 2008 the Daily Mail joined in with its 'Banish the Bag' campaign.

But some commentators - including scientist James Lovelock - argue that while the death of the plastic bag will make us feel better, its effect on climate change will be minimal.

Refusing plastic bags at the check-out will save 5kg of CO2 a year - only about the same amount produced by driving a car for 30 minutes. On the other hand, that isn't the only reason for doing it. Apart from the damage to wildlife, space for landfill sites is running out so the less waste we create the better.

There might even be a small cash benefit too. Some supermarkets offer extra loyalty points for not using plastic bags while others are starting to charge for them.

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What's the debate?

Cynics suggest that reducing plastic bags is mere tokenism when their impact is dwarfed by, among other things, that of supermarket packaging. They say that it makes the supermarkets look good and us feel better, without addressing the real changes in business practices and personal lifestyle choices that are necessary. Arguably, the marginal CO2 savings suggest the cynics may be on to something.

Cotton bags, if reused, offer an energy saving. However, manufacturing cotton products creates lots of CO2, not least through the pesticides and fertilisers used to grow the cotton, and it's not yet clear whether organic cotton produces lower emissions.

Waste watchdog WRAP suggests that a ban or tax on plastic bags will just produce a rise in sales of bin bags and suggest reusing plastic bags as many times as possible. Replacing plastic bags with paper bags, meanwhile, can be just as bad for the environment, as they produce methane when they decompose (a gas 21 times more potent than CO2) and require more energy to manufacture. WRAP also argues that carrier bags which end up in sea are usually full of rubbish, which is probably as damaging to marine life as the plastic bag.

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What's stopping me?

"I mean to reuse plastic bags, but I always forget to take them to the supermarket with me."

Stuff a small purse or wallet with them and keep it in your bag for when you hit the shops. If you have to drive to the supermarket, keep a supply of the bigger, more durable shopping bags in your car at all times.

"But I use mine instead of bin liners."

In fact, many people use carrier bags as well as bin liners. When your stash of carrier bags stuffed under the sink finally runs out, get a bigger bin and switch to lightweight bin liners.

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How do I do it?

  • Buy a heavy-duty shopping bag or a recycled cotton bag instead of a single use paper or plastic one
  • Take a rucksack to carry shopping home more comfortably
  • Get side panniers for your bike.
  • Get a bigger bin and use thin bin liners instead of lining it with plastic carrier bags or biodegradable bags - these create less CO2 to produce, however if they are only used once and then thrown away, it's possible that more biodegradable bags will go to landfill where they break down and generate methane

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Comments

Anonymous 2009-11-06

The suggestions were good.

newfoundjoye, Annandale/USA 2009-09-25

Truly, this will be an easy switch to make. Not only will you be helping the economy, but you never know when you'll need a bag for something. Sometimes, you'll find yourself in a jam without a recycle bag, but if you ask your grocer for paper bags, you can also reuse those instead of loading up on plastic bags. Take your old plastic bags to a recycle center and they will dispose of them properly for you.

Laura 2009-09-16

I try to use my bags as often as i can, and you can buy some really nice ones now to use anyway !!

Preeti, Chandigarh, India 2009-06-09

My company banned plastic within office becuase of which i bought cloth/jute bags which I carry whenever ineed to go shopping for home...

Charli, Kingston-Upon-Thames 2009-04-16

Such a little change, such a big impact overall!

tania, st austell 2009-03-16

I have been using reusable bags for years. My friends used to laugh at me and call me the bag lady. Now I'm the cool one!

Rob, West Yorkshire 2009-03-08

To replace plastic bags for the supermarket shop, I use Footprint Bags, which are reusable, robust and stylish bags that fold into a convenient size.

Hilde, Berghem/Netherlands 2009-02-02

When I take the car to go shopping I always use a foldable (plastic) crate. The one I use for shopping I actually bought in the supermarket, so it's in their colours. You can not only use this crate over and over again, also your shopping doesn't get crushed.

Anonymous 2009-01-28

For years I used to take my backpack with me whenever I went shopping as it was much more comfortable than having plastic carrier bags cutting into my fingers as I walked home! I now also have a cloth bag folded up in my pocket or handbag when I go out, just in case I do some unplanned shopping. Gone of the days of struggling with shopping threatening to spill everywhere when the plastic bag splits or the handles break.

Strawberry, Bath 2009-01-22

No problem! I keep a couple of old carrier bags in my handbag and plenty of large reusable bags in the boot of the car for the weekly shop. Great!

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Glossary terms used on this page
Biodegradable
Organic matter that can break down or decompose rapidly under natural conditions and processes is referred to as biodegradable. Garden and food waste, animal waste, and most paper products, as well as plastics derived from vegetable content, will biodegrade, but not plastic carrier bags and polystyrene cups, for example.
CO2
CO2, or carbon dioxide, is made up of the elements carbon and oxygen. It exists quite naturally in our atmosphere, as part of the carbon cycle. Everyday processes in the plant and animal world both add CO2 to the atmosphere and take it out. However, because it is a greenhouse gas - meaning it affects the temperature of the earth - the exact level of CO2 is important. Burning fossil fuels releases CO2 into the atmosphere, hence the anxiety that extensive use of these fuels is causing climate change.
Climate change
Climate change is the variation in the average global or regional climate as measured by yardsticks such as average temperature and rainfall. This variation is caused by both natural processes and human activity. Weather is what happens over days or even hours, whereas climate is the average weather measured over a longer period. Increasingly when people refer to climate change, however, they specifically mean the phenomenon of global warming.
Emissions
Emissions are the CO2 (and other greenhouse gases) produced by energy use, usually calculated and stated as an annual tally: also referred to as your carbon footprint. Your personal emissions can be direct - such as the gas you personally use to heat your home or the petrol you burn to power your car - or indirect - meaning the energy use that has gone into the products or services you buy. The latter, such as the emissions caused by the manufacture of your new TV, or the packaging your food comes in, are also referred to as embodied emissions.
Landfill
Landfill is disposal of rubbish by burying it under the ground.
Methane
Methane is a hydrocarbon, the main component of natural gas and among the six greenhouse gases to be curbed under the Kyoto protocol. As a greenhouse gas it is estimated to have a warming effect about 25 times as great as CO2. (Compared to CO2 its effects are greater but last for a shorter period). As a fuel, it is used in electricity generation and in the form of compressed natural gas it can be used as vehicle fuel. Methane is produced during the decomposition of many materials in landfill, while about 16% of methane emissions are caused by livestock's digestive processes.
Methane
Methane is a hydrocarbon, the main component of natural gas and among the six greenhouse gases to be curbed under the Kyoto protocol. As a greenhouse gas it is estimated to have a warming effect about 25 times as great as CO2. (Compared to CO2 its effects are greater but last for a shorter period). As a fuel, it is used in electricity generation and in the form of compressed natural gas it can be used as vehicle fuel. Methane is produced during the decomposition of many materials in landfill, while about 16% of methane emissions are caused by livestock's digestive processes.

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