The Plastic Bag Debate

Every where you turn some one is talking about caring for the environment and doing your bit. One of the main subjects of concern is packaging and the critical issue carrier bags. Now obviously because I work in the pacakaging industryit does make me a bit biased, but on the other hand most of my leisure time is spent enjoying the outdoors so I’m not writing this from a business point of view, just from the facts I’ve picked up along the way.

Ban The Bag!

That’s the idea that people are trying to get us to adopt, but before we just jump to a knee jerk reaction let’s just weigh up the options and make the right decisions. The bag in question is the plastic bag, which is used in just about every outlet or business. From the high density vest carriers that are handed out at the supermarkets right up to the fashion carriers from the highstreet stores. Despite the term plastic bag being put upon these products they are actually made from polythene, high density being the crinkly type of the superkmarket vest carrier and low density is the glossy looking smooth feeling fashion carriers. Polythene is obviously a type of plastic which means it is made via a by-product of crude oil. Which as we all know is a non-renewable fossil fuel. Could this connection with oil be the reason that people want to ban the bag?

What’s In A Bag?

Before we put that bag in the bin let’s just look at the polythene bag for what it is (you always need to understand your enemy) Polythene is a very cheap material, despite costs in oil and subsequently polythene rising near on every month it is still a very cost effective material for carrier bags. Polythene has a very strong tensile strength for it’s weight, this quality makes it suitable for carrier bags. You need a material that will create a strong bags without being too bulky or heavy for the end user. With polythene you can create a very large carrier bag with inherit strength’s without making it uncomfortable for the user. Polythene is a flexible plastic ‘film’, very handy if you are one of those people that tries to re-use a carrier bag. You can fold, crush or stuff your polythene carrier bag into smaller spaces.

The Arguments And Alternatives

I will be totally honest I have no idea why people have suddenly decided that the polythene bag is wrong. The only reason I can sum up is the fact that they are made from oil. But there is a trend to ban the polythene bag but replace it with what? Paper The paper bag is always a good alternative. You can have you bag made from paper that are sourced from managed forests, you can even put some recylced paper in there to make it even 'greener’. Of course you can produce a 100% recycled paper for that totally environmentally friendly option; or is it?… Degradable Polythene What about a polythene bag that will disappear over time? Degradable polythene is a standard polythene which has a extra additive mixed in during the conversion, this additive will cause the film to eventually degrade to natural occurring elements. Re-usable BagsCarrier bags need not be a single use item. Many years ago the trend was to have a 'shopping bag’ which you would use to take shopping, then re-use it when you go again. Made from more durable materials such as woven polypropylene (another form of plastic) or a Jute based material, even down to cotton linen. They are more expensive and would not be given away but they offer a re-usable; bag for life, option.

The Right Bag For The Right Job

If we are in a society were we must ban the bag and we have the options why is this not such an easy option to make. Well for one all the other options are not really as great as they first look. The paper bag looks like the best option, nice and natural, clean and eco-friendly. Well not quite. For a start paper bags come from tree’s, which if used from a managed forest is not a problem, but think of the transport and logisitics in getting felled trees to a position where it can be made into a bag. Wood/paper is not the most manoverable of materials and would add extra steps into the process. If you wanted a white paper bag the wood pulp must be bleached to achieve this, further polluting the environoment. Once your bag is made it is time for shipping, the finished paper bags would take up so much more space that an estimated 26,000 extra lorries would be required on the UK roads just to meet the commercial needs of carrier bags. If that was not enough you can easily expect to pay over 4 times the cost of the polythene bag just to get to this level. Not cost effective, not eco-friendly and not much good in the rain! Don’t be foiled by the recycling part of paper, that is more transport, more bleach and an extra cost. So to prevent this you chuck it in the landfill knowing that paper degrades. Paper does degrade, the best thing it has going for it, except paper degrading creates extremely high levels of Carbon Dioxide, which is the cause of so many other environmental issues. In my mind the best way to care for the environment is re-use as many materials as we can, preserve what we have got and reduce the amount of waste we are producing. To which I can not see the benefit of a degradable polythene bag, or paper for that matter. Yes they eventually disappear but there is only one final destination for a degradable carrier bag; the landfill. Due to the fact that degradable polythene will degrade you can not recycle it or allow it to be mixed with a standard polythene, this results in the material being next to useless unless it is put into a landfill. To which in my mind that goes against everything for caring for the environment, you are still using the oil to make the polythene yet you are unable to reuse it in any way. Re-usable shopping bags are great as they can be used time and time again, making them real value for money. But that is just the problem, the money involved in obtaining them. They will never be given away in the same scale as the carrier bag, making them unobtainable by most smaller companies. They must be first bought and then carried whenever required, remember to take it with you.

Conclusions

Yep the simple polythene bag is the one we see sitting in the hedges across the country, but be honest is that the problem of the bag, polythene, plastic or any material? The reason you see them there is because of the end-user and their mental attitude towards using the environment as a dustbin. The plastic bag does not destroy the environment if it is taken care of and re-used or re-cycled in an appropriate manor. What is needed is the ability and incentives to re-cycle your polythene bags, even re-use them or invest in a re-usable shopping bag. Currently there is no real solution for what to do about packaging, even in my local area I can not recycle carrier bags, of any description. There is not a single answer to how best to tackle this and the wonder material that will make everything better. So I personally feel that if we are to really care for the environment we must learn to stop making rash decisions and stop to think about the bigger picture. We must learn to re-use the materials we have got. But also see the alternatives for what they really are, sometimes it is not as simple as replacing plastic for paper.