Switching To Paper Bags Isn’t As Easy As It Seems | Commentary and opinion
When it comes to packaging, there is a clear hierarchy in public perceptions. Plastic is the root of all evil. Aluminum is no longer a juvenile offender. Recycled materials earn a few brownie points. And paper is probably the best we can do, if we can’t completely avoid the packaging.
So Morrisons and Waitrose’s final engagements should go well. The two are ditching plastic bags for a lifetime testing base, with a view to wider deployment if things go well. While Morrisons is replacing its plastic bags with paper versions, Waitrose has yet to confirm what alternatives there will be, if any.
Either way, it certainly looks like a change for the better. Morrisons says the move could reduce plastic bag use by 90 million bags per year, which equates to 3,510 tonnes of plastic. Waitrose says it will remove 40 million bags a year from circulation if the program goes as planned.
As both retailers know, there are real reasons for these negative public perceptions of plastic. No one wants notoriously slow-degrading plastic bags clogging landfills – many of those supplied by supermarkets do, according to Morrisons – or making the problem of plastic pollution in our oceans worse.
But switching to paper is not as easy as it first appears. A 2011 Northern Ireland Assembly research paper, who measured the environmental impact of different options, found that “it takes more than four times as much energy to make a paper bag than to make a plastic bag.” And let’s not forget what paper bags are made of. You have to cut down forests to produce the paper in the first place.
Additionally, the study found that paper bags had to be reused at least three times to make them more environmentally friendly than a single-use plastic bag. This is hardly less than the lifetime plastic bags, which have to be used four times.
And there is a question mark as to whether that will happen. Although Morrisons claims that many reusable plastic bags go straight to the landfill, it is nonetheless common to see customers bring their “lifetime bags” – and the term makes it very clear that it is meant to be used over and over again. Once. It remains to be seen whether they will do the same with the paper options, which are generally seen as more disposable and biodegradable.
Morrisons has put a lot of effort into resolving these issues. As for the manufacturing process, he made sure that the bags come from responsibly managed forests and are made at an eco-fueled site in Wales. It also emphasizes the strength of the bags – they have a capacity similar to that of a standard lifetime plastic bag and are strong enough to carry heavy weights up to 16kg, according to Morrisons. This should make them more likely to be reused, rather than torn and thrown away.
These efforts are to be applauded. But the ultimate test will be the behavior of the public and whether they view the paper bags as truly reusable. Because as the packaging debate shows, perceptions are everything.