Insights 03/07/2020 Andy Capper

Plastic Bag Free Day – A Reason to Celebrate?

Yet another month, another week, another awareness day – but is this something we should be celebrating? A persistent objection to plastic bags feels, to me – as with most aspects of the sustainability debate – an oversimplification of a highly complex matter about which we should all strive to be better informed. Plastic bags are not the enemy: it’s our behaviour as consumers that needs radical change.

But, without single-use plastic bags (which I’m against), then what? Rejecting one unsustainable practice, without having a better solution waiting in the wings, has often proven to worsen the situation. For example many brands have moved from rigid bottles to light weight pouches, in the process creating new problems as they are incredibly challenging to recycle.

In the case of single-use plastics, their presence is so ingrained into our lifestyles that it is impossible to go completely cold turkey. It’s also about much more than simply changing materials. Finding better solutions requires driving subtle yet powerful shifts in our consumer habits, if we really want to create lasting and sustainable change.

But aren’t better options already available? What about those durable plastic ‘bags for life’? Or paper bags? Or my trusty cotton tote? While these alternatives are good in theory, let’s take a look at the reality…

Bags for Life

When the 5p bag charge (later 10p) was levied in the UK, the government reported that sales of single use bags fell by 90% at the 7 largest supermarkets brands. At the same time Greenpeace found the sale of plastic ‘Bags for Life’ (which uses x4 the amount of plastic) increased by 1.5 billion. That works out as 54 per household per year, proving that the majority’s ingrained behaviour of new bags every week at the checkout did not change. As we’re not yet achieving the minimum four uses, we’re collectively in a worse situation. I can’t help but think the name ‘bags for life’ is somewhat ironic.

Paper Bags

Paper seems like a great alternative. They are recyclable and don’t pollute our oceans. Heck! The brown paper texture even looks more sustainable. But did you know that a paper bag’s carbon footprint is three times bigger than single use plastic due to the energy required to turn fibres into paper? And is it even possible to use the same paper bag three times for your weekly shop? We all know what happens when it comes into contact with wet or sharp objects.

Cotton Totes

These seem like the ultimate solution. Durable, practical and desirable: a walking billboard to our sustainable credentials. Or are they? In reality, cotton is an energy and water-intensive crop. A standard cotton tote would need to be used over 7,000 times to equate to the same carbon footprint as a single use plastic bag. And for those that like to look for the organic option, that tote would need to be used 20,000 times as the cotton yield is far less efficient. If you shopped every day, that one tote would have to last you from school to retirement!

So, how do we create a durable bag that is something we desire, fits into our lifestyles  and that we want to use and reuse, whilst not having that horrific carbon footprint to make it in the first place? It’s clear that we need some radical new thinking.

Alternative materials do already exist. Bioplastics are being made from all sorts of crops and what would be typically considered waste. The Co-op has made compostable bags from corn starch, whereas Ikea bags use the same idea but  with sugar cane. Fish scales, algae, and even Co2 gas, can be harvested to make alternatives to petroleum-based plastics. This could have a huge impact:if the US shifted all its petroleum-based plastic to bioplastic it would cut greenhouse gas emissions by 25%.

Here’s my favourite (and most quirky) alternative: Lobster Plastic. A true by-product of the shellfish food industry, shells that would normally go to waste can instead be turned into a biodegradable, carbon neutral plastic called CHITOSAN.

How cool would it be to have a bag-for-life made from ground-up lobster shells? Durable, iconic, carbon neutral, and made from waste.

Above: Lobster plastic bag concept – closed.

The big challenge with material changes, is that,by and large,they’re invisible to consumers. Sure, we can write in big letters that it’s made from something else, but it’s not very desirable and at the point you’re reading it, have probably already made the decision that you need the bag. At Echo we believe in celebrating these new materials and really creating something aesthetically unique that makes it easy for consumers to question and consider their choices. Our lobster plastic concept uses crustacean waste, a by-product of the food industry and turn it into something iconic. Designed to fold up small when not in use, with a rigid exo-skeleton that unfolds and keeps the bag stable for filling and carrying.

The challenge with all these different scenarios is not the manufacturing or the material. As we can see, alternative materials are well within our reach. The technologies are all available in order to stop and, in fact, reverse climate change, but it is our behaviour that is the pivotal issue. To make this change, we must first start with better informing our consumers. The myths around bags for life, paper bags and cotton totes need to be busted before we start offering alternatives. Knowledge is power, and the more consumers know, the better and more sustainable their choices will be.

We then need to make these alternatives attractive and affordable, which is where branding, marketing and advertising can step in. In the case of bags, these aren’t huge shifts. All we need is to work together to ensure that we all make more informed choices the next time we take a trip to the store.