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Are You Using the Right Shopping Bags?

By: Kathryn Senior PhD - Updated: 27 Dec 2012 | comments*Discuss
Shopping Bags Supermarkets Plastic Bags

Whenever you go out shopping, whether it is for food, clothes or general items, whatever you buy ends up in some sort of shopping bag. Supermarkets tend to have plenty of thin plastic bags, or you can buy reusable bags which can either be durable plastic or canvas. Designer shops and chain stores can offer paper bags, with their designer logos, advertising them as biodegradable. But which type of shopping bag is best to use from an environmental point of view?

Environmental Problems with Plastic Bags

The thin plastic bags are well known for their detrimental impact on the environment. Plastic bags traditionally are not biodegradable and end up in landfill, where they take over a century to break down, if they do so at all. Plastic bags can also escape, blown everywhere in the wind as they are so light, causing littering in hedgerows, trees and anywhere they can catch on objects. In aquatic or marine environments, plastic bags have been swallowed by fish, birds, whales and seals with disastrous consequences.The number of plastic bags used worldwide is huge. Approximately five hundred billion to one thousand billion plastic bags are used and then thrown away after just one use each year. That equates to 60 million every hour.

Paper Bags – Not Too Ecofriendly

The good thing about paper bags is that they break down easily once they have been used and discarded. Paper bags that go into landfill biodegrade quite quickly and their disposal is nowhere near as difficult as for plastic bags. Unfortunately, the cost of producing paper bags in terms of energy usage and environmental impact is quite high. Paper requires wood from trees and the demand can be quite great. It is possible to use sustainable wood, but the energy used in the manufacture of paper bags cannot be avoided.

What About Resusing Bags?

One of the best solutions seems to be to reuse bags. This doesn’t really mean using a flimsy carrier bag twice or three times, as they rarely hold out that long. The real alternative is to use the plastic bags that are far more robust that are able to be used dozens if not hundreds of times. Most of the major supermarkets make their own and have branding messages and logos on the outside and these sell for about 5p per bag.

Buying several is very low cost and these can then be used to pack up an entire weekly shop for a family, week after week. The cost of manufacture of such bags is higher than a simple plastic bag, but this is spread over the many uses of the bag, so becomes negligible compared to disposable plastic or paper shopping bags.

What About Recycling Shopping Bags?

Another solution to make shopping bags more ecofriendly is to make them from materials that are more biodegradable. Plastic bags are now available that do biodegrade more quickly. Some of the best are made from plant materials and break down in landfill in between four and six weeks. This type of bag costs more per unit to make that the traditional disposable plastic bags but cost less in terms of pollution and environmental impact.

What About No Shopping Bags?

In the UK, the last 15 years has seen the establishment of shopping deliveries by several leading supermarkets. Shop and drop services now offer the option of ordering shopping without any shopping bags. Deliveries are made within plastic crates and unloaded at the door ready to put away. This avoids all shopping bags and, as several loads of shopping are delivered in the same van, there is less transport involved compared to several families using their own car to do the weekly shop.

Other Environmental Considerations

As well as giving careful thought to the type of bags that you put shopping in, it is also worth thinking about the type of shopping you are buying. There is a great advantage from an environmental and energy usage point of view to buying locally produced food and products rather those that are imported. The carbon footprint of locally sourced root vegetables is much smaller than fresh exotic vegetables brought over by plane from Africa, South America and elsewhere.

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