Shoppers believe paper or canvas bags are ‘more sustainable’ than plastic bags. They’re wrong.

I love shopping for food at Woolworths. Your mileage may vary, perhaps depending on where you live, but where I am, their fresh food is consistently better than that of their rivals.

All other supermarkets in my town have, at one time or another, disappointed me with stale produce, grit in the leafy greens, or meat I’ve had to throw out. Sure, they’ll replace it when you complain, but who wants to add returning bad food to their list of chores?

Woolworths is simply a cut above the other supermarkets where I live, and if you buy their specials, avoid the fancy stuff, and take into account the longer shelf-life of their fresh produce, it is easily price-competitive with its down-market rivals.

Reusable bags

There’s one thing I hate, however. Almost every time I shop there, I have to buy new canvas bags. (I say ‘canvas’, but I have no idea what they’re actually made of. They don’t have any identifying label on them, nor a recycleability icon, for that matter.)

Sure, they’re supposed to be reusable, but once you’ve carried your bag home, you unpack it in the kitchen, and put the bag away in nearest convenient kitchen cupboard. And there they accumulate.

I constantly forget to pack bags when I go shopping. Shopping is often an afterthought to do on the way home from a trip to do something else, in any case.

If I do remember them, I have to carry however many bags I think I might need with me while I’m shopping, perhaps at multiple stores. I’d need a bag for bags.

Perhaps you’re clever and store the bags not in your kitchen cupboard, but in your car. But then they make a mess in your boot, you have to move them before putting dogs in there, and you still need to remember to grab them before you walk into the shopping centre.

The hygiene of reusable bags is also questionable. If your meat isn’t double-wrapped and vacuum-sealed, you could get all sorts of nasty germ colonies growing on the bags, making them decidedly less reusable.

And when the time comes to wrap something to keep it fresh, line my small waste bins, pickup dog do in the garden, pick up litter in the street, or need some makeshift gloves, I don’t have any suitable plastic bags.

These reusable bags are just a royal pain in the arse.

Defeats the purpose

Buying new bags every second time you go shopping defeats the entire purpose of replacing plastic bags with reusable canvas bags. And the same is true for the paper bags that other retailers give you.

In order for these bags to be more sustainable than cheap plastic bags, they have to be reused. A lot.

Some years ago I did a deep dive into the subject and it turns out that between manufacturing, transporting heavier bags, and eventual recycling or disposal, the environmental impact of alternatives to the common low-density poly-ethylene bag (LDPE) is many multiples higher.

According to a Danish life-cycle assessment of grocery carrier bags, you have to use a heavier high-density poly-ethylene (HDPE) plastic bag between 35 and 84 times to achieve the same low environmental impact as using a recycled LDPE bag once for shopping, and once more to line a waste bin.

You’d have to use a paper shopping bag 43 times to reduce its environmental impact to that of an ordinary plastic shopping bag. A composite bag made of jute, poly-propylene and cotton needs to be used 870 times, a pure cotton bag 7 100 times, and an organic cotton bag an astonishing 20 000 times, if you want the low environmental impact of the humble plastic shopping bag, from cradle to grave.

I don’t think I’ve ever used a Woolworths bag more than a few times. Assuming it’s a poly-propylene composite bag, that means the environmental impact of my shopping bag use has likely increased many-fold.

Failed bans

A recent report – albeit commissioned by the plastics industry – claims that in New Jersey, a ban on the use of single-use plastic and paper bags did lead to a fall in the use of such bags (as one might expect), but that the switch to longer-lasting poly-propylene bags meant overall plastic use tripled, and associated carbon dioxide emissions went up by 500%. These reusable bags, it said, are only reused two or three times on average.

The report has been denounced as industry propaganda in an article that cedes a number of its points and fails to substantively challenge its claims.

In California, which one might expect has the resources to deal with plastic waste in a sophisticated manner, a ten-year-old LDPE plastic bag ban has also been failing, for a number of reasons including substitution and the widespread failure of recycling programmes to deal with HDPE plastic bags.

In Kenya, ‘the world’s strictest plastic bag ban’ has also failed, since local smugglers simply import them from neighbouring countries.

A recent study in the US found not only that plastic bag regulations are inconvenient for consumers, but that the switch to alternative bag products raises questions whether they reduce plastic waste at all. It also confirms that alternatives to single-use plastic bags cost more energy to produce and to transport and cause more harm to the environment in the end.

Ocean plastic

Plastic bag opponents like to go on about plastic pollution in the oceans, but the reality is that only about three percent of the plastic we produce actually ends up in the ocean.

The majority of oceanic plastic pollution comes from the fishing industry.

The vast majority of the remainder enters the ocean via ten river systems. The Yangtze River is by far the largest contributor, followed distantly by the Indus, the Yellow, the Hai, the Nile, the Ganges, the Pearl, the Amur, the Niger, and the Mekong rivers. All other rivers account for perhaps 10% of the plastic waste that ends up in the oceans.

That means that reducing plastic waste in South Africa, or anywhere in the developed world, will make only a miniscule difference to the overall amount of plastic in the ocean.

Microplastics

People have also been told to stress about ‘microplastics’. They’re everywhere, concerned scientists keep telling us.

Sure. So are microminerals (sand), microfibres from clothing, and other micro particles commonly known as dust. Small particles made of metal, silicon, organic matter, natural fibres, and, indeed, plastics, does go everywhere.

It isn’t at all clear whether it does any harm, however. There is no evidence that microplastics cause significant harm in the environment, and no evidence that it harms humans at all. Claims of potential ecological harm are largely based on speculation and weak research that artificially exposed test organisms to large quantities of artificial plastic particles.

Plastic bag litter on land is a different matter. Besides occasionally causing harm to animals, it is also a great eyesore. The solution to that problem, however, is better disposal and waste management. Plenty other objects can cause unsightly or harmful litter. The answer is to minimise littering, not to ban otherwise useful objects.

Companies and the environment

Let’s get a few things straight. Companies care about profit. They don’t care about the environment, or any of those waffly social niceties they go on about in their ‘integrated reports’.

I don’t say this to cast shade. It is not a bad thing to care only about profit (though that is a column for another day). I say this merely to state a fact.

In order to make a profit, companies have to please customers. Customers who are pleased become repeat customers and recommend others to become customers too. Customers who are pleased are less likely to defect to competitors.

Ergo, companies do what customers want. If companies appear to care about the environment (or support some or other charity, or sponsor some or other sport), they are merely acting in a way that they think pleases their potential customers best. It’s all marketing.

This, then, explains why various shops and supermarkets, particularly those catering to the elite end of the market, are switching away from plastic bag in favour of paper or canvas bags.

They’re not doing it because the science says it’s a good idea.They probably haven’t even read the science, nor do they care.

They do it only because so many consumers slavishly follow the latest eco-fads promoted by environmental lobby groups, that they have to get on the bandwagon to appear sufficiently eco-friendly to do business with.

It is not even clear that environmental lobby groups care about the environment either. If they did, their focus would be on China’s plastic waste problem, or on the fishing industry, and not on consumers in rich countries who make only a minor contribution to plastic pollution.

These groups largely care about campaigning against wealth, capitalism, and globalisation, because they’re all eco-socialists at heart, because eco-socialism brings in the donations.

Plastic is a convenient target, because what could possibly be more capitalist and artificial than plastic?

They ignore the extraordinary benefits that plastic has over alternatives, in all manner of ways including reducing the need to raze forests for wood and mine the earth for metals. Then they cynically use it to guilt gullible consumers into convincing corporations to offer more expensive alternatives.

The companies then employ marketers who claim the company ‘cares about the environment’ and is ‘committed to sustainability’, while the sales managers rub their hands with glee, totting up the profits they make from consumers who believe every eco-fad they’re fed.

Enough

I say, enough! I want the choice. I want my cheap, disposable plastic shopping bags back. Not because I don’t care about the environment, but because I do.

More expensive alternatives cost more resources to produce. They cost more fuel to transport. They demand more time, money, and hassle. They are less hygienic. They are harder to dispose of or recycle. They have a larger environmental footprint.

I don’t think all these costs and sacrifices, personal and environmental, are worth the virtue-signalling value of carrying reusable shopping bags everywhere just in case you have to pop into Woolies of an afternoon.

Bring back plastic bags!

The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR

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Image: A reusable Woolworths bag in the trash. Photo: Ivo Vegter


contributor

Ivo Vegter is a freelance journalist, columnist and speaker who loves debunking myths and misconceptions, and addresses topics from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets. .