the great plastic bag debate

the great plastic bag debate

Tracey Banks

it is fair to say that the UK still has a sizeable plastic bag habit.

Despite the Plastic Bag surcharge, the number of single-use bags sold by all large UK retailers in 2018/2019 was 1.1 billion. This figure doesn't account for sales of 'Bags for Life' which have become a significant proportion of supermarket plastic bag sales - more than their single-use equivalent...

But what is worse, plastic bag waste or the impact of production of the paper or cotton alternatives? Did you know that plastic bags were invented to save the planet?

Bags for Life - the new single-use plastic bag

bag for life sales increase

Sales of "bags for life" rose to 1.5bn in 2019, Greenpeace research has found, showing households bought an average of 54 a year and concluding they are being used as a disposable option by many customers.

Bags for life are much thicker than single-use bags, some weighing almost four time as much, so they contain much more plastic and need to be used at least four times to ensure they contributed less to climate change than the lighter, single-use bags.

The idea is that customers use fewer of them so the total amount of plastic being used over the course of a year will be less. But obviously this is not always working.

What's the problem with plastic bags?

most deadly ocean plastic waste

Some regard plastic bags as the main source of debris pollution in the ocean and they cause many problems: toxins in plastic harm marine wildlife; sea mammals get caught in the bags and aren't able to come to the surface to breathe and drown; animals, birds, and fish ingest pieces of a plastic bag which block their digestive system and causes them to die.

how long to decompose plastic waste

On average, plastic bags are used for 11 minutes yet, depending on the type of plastic, take between 20 - 1000 years for a plastic bag to disintegrate.

canal and river trust UK plastic highway

According to a survey, 2.25 million plastic bags end up in UK waterways each year. With canals and rivers acting as ‘plastic highways’, plastic bag waste is a huge problem for UK wildlife too.

Ironic then that plastic bags were invented to save the planet

plastic bag invention patent

The Swedish engineer Sten Gustaf Thulin created them in 1959 as an alternative to paper bags, which were considered bad for the environment because they resulted in forests being chopped down.

They were significantly stronger than paper bags intended to be used over and over again as 'reusable' bags.

By the mid-1960s they were replacing paper and cloth alternatives in Europe and by the 1980s they almost replaced paper bags around the whole world.

Unfortunately the ‘reusable’ plastic bag that Thulin envisioned has become one of the most scourged single-use items on the planet – with many countries opting for bans, taxation or different forms of voluntary agreements to limit the now one trillion bags produced a year. 

So what’s the alternative?

Are plastic bags better or worse than paper? And what about a cotton tote? The honest truth: there is no easy answer.

Whilst plastic bags do not biodegrade and are filling the oceans, marine life, and our food supply with plastic bits, a cotton tote or a paper bag may be worse for the environment than a plastic one. This is due to consideration of all other environmental impact factors, like the impact of manufacturing on climate change, ozone depletion, water use, air pollution, and human toxicity.

number of reuses for reusable bags vs plastic bags

Cotton bags must be reused thousands of times before they meet the environmental performance of plastic bags—and, organic cotton bags have to be reused many more times than conventional cotton bags (20,000 versus 7,000 times), due to lower yield rate on average than conventional cotton, and therefore requiring more resources, like water, to grow the same amount.

As for paper bags, they need to be used over 40 times to have same cumulative environmental impact as a classic plastic bag – which for some paper bags may not even be realistic given the weakness of the material.

So what’s the answer?

The easiest answer is to use whatever you have in your house now - be it a pile of cotton totes, or a jumble of plastic bags. Don’t throw them out, keep using them until they are unusable. And whatever you do, try not to buy new ones.

Why does unpckd sell bags then?

turtle bag cotton natural turtle bag cotton black


We choose to sell cotton string shopper bags as an alternative to a plastic bag for when a customer does need a bag - or wants to buy one for someone else.

These string bags are supplied by Turtle Bags who were established to raise awareness of the hazards of plastic to the marine environment and offer alternatives to plastic bags.

The bags themselves are light density, minimal material and made of organic cotton. Turtle Bags works with its long-term production partners to provide fair employment conditions. 

Whilst we offer bags for sale, we wholeheartedly believe in and encourage reusing what we have before buying new.




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