Saturday, 31 May 2008

Paper, Plastic, What the F...abric!

Can you save the world by bringing your own bag to Waitrose? Has your paper-bagged lunch a reduced carbon footprint? Are we barking up the wrong last trees that are left?

First things first: I come from a country where we have been charged for plastic bags in supermarkets as long as I can remember which is about 3 decades. Everybody is used to it, and guess what, nobody pays. The simple reason is that people are either bringing their own bags to the store, or alternative means of getting your purchases home.

When I moved to this country I was therefore amazed that if you buy anything, even just a pack of crisps, you are always being asked whether you would like a bag with it. It turns out however, that things seem to be changing.

Marks and Spencer recently announced a 5p charge for any plastic bag with the purpose of eliminating about 280m plastic bags (! ) a year. On a side note, this led to the following conversation when recently buying a bottle of Lucozade at Tesco after the visit to the gym.

Me: I don't need a bag for this.
Tesco Employee: Come on, have one.
Me: I really don't need a bag.
T.E.: But they are free, we're not as stingy as Marks and Spencer.
The question is whether the plastic bag is really the culprit for the demise of our planet, or simply unfairly blamed. The raw facts are:
  • There are about 13bn plastic bags used in the UK every year, which is more than 200 per household.
  • A plastic bag can take 400 - 1000 years to break down.
  • Most plastic bags do not end up in landfills, but all over place. Therefore only 0.3% of waste in landfills is in fact made up of plastic bags.
  • On the upside (if there is any), claims that thousands of seabirds are killed by plastic bags each year, seem to be bogus.
  • In Ireland, where charging for plastic bags was introduced, plastic bag usage decreased, but purchases of bin liners increased by 400 per cent.
Is it maybe just the fact that the bag is plastic, that is so detrimental? Are you being more responsible if you ask to get a paper bag with your lunch at Pret a Manger?

It turns out that paper and plastic bags, if only used once, are very similar in their effects on the environment, considering everything from the resources used in production to their recycling.

I can see why some supermarkets are happily continuing to hand out plastic bags, given that they function as free advertising - you are effectively showing to the world that you shopped at Tesco whilst nobody seems to be shopping at M & S (although they will probably sell branded tote bags soon).

Even if I can't claim that I save a bunch of albatrosses every year, it seems like a no-brainer to happily refuse a plastic bag for every small purchase because it is just not needed (in particular not when you are with your man bag).

And for the regular groceries, I do it the way I grew up and bring my ecologically friendly bag labelled "Applied Probability Conference 1999".

Which is the same as being labelled "I am not a plastic bag - my owner is a geek".
Originally published on HereIsTheCity Life on 11/Mar/2008. View the original here.