Green Steve Coming To A Bag For Life Near You

Green Steve bag for life

So just the other day I took delivery of my first batch of organic cotton bags for life with my lovely logo printed on them and it got me thinking about just how much of a difference one will make to the environment.

I, like many others, consider the plastic carrier bag to be an evil enemy of sustainability but as a person who likes to know both sides of the argument, I thought it my duty to look further into this. What I found was that bags for life are better but only if you genuinely use them again and again.

The Environment Agency Report Their Findings

In 2011, the Environment Agency released a rather lengthy paper on the environmental impact of a variety of plastic bag alternatives and it did surprise me a little. The report, based upon bags available in UK supermarkets in 2006, shows just how many times you would have to use each type of bag for it to have the same global warming potential as a traditional HDPE carrier bag.

If you were to throw the HDPE bag straight in the bin after use then you would have to use a cotton bag for life 131 times to make up for the extra global warming potential required to produce it. If you then make allowances for the reuse of an HDPE bag (40% reused as bin liners) then the figure for cotton bags rises to 173.

Surprisingly, even a paper bag has to be used 3 times to make up for the additional emissions that go into its production, use and disposal.

There is a least one issue I take with the report and that is in their assumption that because a plastic bag has a capacity of some 18 litres, shoppers actually fill these bags completely. The number of times I have seen people leaving a supermarket with two half-full plastic bags because they do not want to run the risk of a single one splitting; and don’t get me started on double bagging fragile items like wine or spirits!

I have been using one of my sample bags for life for the best part of a month now and can honestly say that I haven’t had to use any additional plastic bags in this time. I have no fear of my cotton bag breaking and have on many occasions packed it with far more weight than I’d put in a plastic bag.

Thus, while it may be true that my cotton bag generates 131 times the emissions of a single use plastic bag, this does not equate to 131 shopping trips if you ask me. No, I estimate that it’s more like 80 shopping trips.

And what’s more, if you think that 80 trips to the shops sounds like a lot, most families will have one big shop a week plus numerous smaller ones to buy essentials like bread and milk. So that 80 trips could be as little as 6 months use. In my case, since I shop almost 7 days a week, it will only take me 3 months to break even on the greenhouse gas emissions of my cotton bag.

Going Beyond The Report

One thing that the Environment Agency don’t really talk about is the disposal of plastic bags and the effects that this has on the environment.

  • Apparently, HDPE bags do not biodegrade but rather photodegrade – effectively they are broken down by the sun into smaller and smaller toxic particles which can enter soil and streams and thus enter the food chain.
  • There is also a hotly debated accusation that plastic bags kill some 100,000 marine animals and up to 1 million sea birds each year but while many anti-bag campaigners quote these numbers, The Times found little evidence to support this. The argument goes on and while I doubt the huge numbers above, I am sure that some wildlife DO suffer from plastic bag pollution.
  • While plastic bags probably make up a small proportion of the waste heading to landfill, it is certainly one of the more avoidable forms of waste and with the UK fast running out of landfill space; any reduction is a good reduction. Consider what a mountain of 6.8 billion carrier bags would look like – that’s how many we used in 2011.
  • Another source of conflict between anti and pro plastic bag groups is the use of oil in their manufacture. The pro plastic bag lobbyists say that they are made out of the by products of natural gas refining and that by not making plastic bags, this ethane would be released into the atmosphere anyway. I have found it tough to find accurate information as to whether any oil is used in the production of HDPE bags so I can’t say either way.
  • Plastic bags are a source of litter; I don’t care what anybody says about that; I can see it with my own eyes. I’m not, however, saying that they are the only form of litter but they are certainly one of the most visible.

Are Plastic Bags Too Small To Care About?

Some people, leading environmental writer George Monbiot included, would argue that in the grand scheme of things, the downsides to plastic bags are too small to focus on and that we “could eliminate every bag in the UK and make only the tiniest dent in our total environmental impact” but in my view, any dent is a dent worth trying for.

As you will probably realise by now, I am a firm believer in doing a multitude of small things to reduce our impact on the planet alongside the occasional grand gesture such as putting solar panels on our homes and offices or cutting down on the distance we drive.

If nothing else, we are reminded of our own environmental footprint every time we use a bag for life or every time we get charged for using a plastic bag. Awareness is sometimes as important as the green act itself and bags for life certainly raise awareness.

Are you a bag for life fan or have you now got far too many of them gathering dust in your cupboards? Leave a comment below and let me know your thoughts.

Steve (152 Posts)

I am chief writer and editor on Green Steve. Blogging since 2011, I like to delve into a wide number of topics to help people reduce their carbon footprint. You should follow me on Twitter here. And add me to your Google+ circles here.


10 Responses to “Green Steve Coming To A Bag For Life Near You”

  1. KMartin
    June 3, 2012 at 1:39 AM

    I try to be a bag for life user. I currently live in China, where they produce more plastic bags and packaging than I have ever seen in the US, where I am from. The Chinese grocery stores do charge for each plastic bag…sometimes. I believe that this message is extremely important for China.

    Also, you can’t measure the intangibles or the sociological/mental side effects of switching to using reusable bags. When a person switches, they are making a concious decision and it may lead them to make other environmentally responsible decision. It’s like a “gateway decision”

  2. Ann
    June 8, 2012 at 8:35 PM

    Hi greensteve

    I am a great fan of reusable bags too. I have several of supermarket bags which I take with me each time I shop at the supermarket. I also try to take them if I am shopping but must admit when going to the clothes shops I end up having one of their bags. I have not had the nerve just to say to them I will put them in my own bag. Not sure if they would like that as it advertising their stores. They never ask if I want to put the items in my own bag like the supermarkets do. They encourge you by giving you points. What do you think about this problem.

    • Steve
      June 11, 2012 at 9:50 AM

      I find that while the stores might want you to use their bags for advertising purposes, the staff at the till don’t care nearly as much – they are just at work and barely bat an eyelid if you say you don’t want one of their bags. Personally I think all shops should be forced to ask people if they need a bag before packing anything into a store bag, there are probably others out there who just feel like they are obliged to take the bag once it has been given to them.

  3. Ann
    June 8, 2012 at 8:38 PM

    Forgot to say one other problem with shops that give you paper bags like a couple I know is that if it is raining they fall to pieces. two ladies had this problem on the holiday I have just been on.

  4. Tom Wood
    June 20, 2012 at 10:44 AM

    Jeez, never knew that the plastic bags just reform into more toxic chemicals when they break down! Really interesting article, love it. Definitely agree that plastic bags are a bad source of litter, such an eyesore!

  5. Nicola
    July 5, 2012 at 6:02 PM

    I do try to remember to grab my bag-for-life when I do the shopping, but have to admit I am guilty of leaving it behind on quite a few occasions. So now my cupboards are stuffed with plastic bags and I have absolutely no idea what to do with them!

    • Steve
      July 6, 2012 at 10:53 AM

      Hi Nicola – many big supermarkets provide recycling facilities for plastic carrier bags so have a look next time you are doing your shopping. Alternatively, you can get a second use out of them by turning them into bin liners for small waste bins in kitchens, bathrooms and offices.

      • Nicola
        July 6, 2012 at 2:21 PM

        Thank you for your brilliant suggestions, Steve.

        I’m popping down to the supermarket in a bit, so will have a look for the facility you mention. I know there are definitely recycling bins there, but thought those were only for paper or glass — thanks for enlightening me!

        And that’s an ingenious idea about re-using the bags as small-bin liners. My bathroom bin is ALWAYS filled with gunk when I empty it, I have to wash it in the bath! So this would definitely killing two birds with one stone — Brilliant stuff!

        Cheers mate : )

  6. March 16, 2013 at 11:48 PM

    Hi Steve

    where did you get the bags done?
    I’d like to get some done to have at the June Croydon Green Fair on 15th June.

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