“To my dad, the idea that people would simply throw these away would be… bizarre.” These were the words used by the son of Swedish engineer and plastic bag inventor Sten Gustaf Thulin when recently interviewed by the BBC. Thulin invented the plastic bag to help the planet – he never imagined they would contribute to its devastation.
After inventing the plastic bag in 1959, Thulin always carried one around in his pocket; most of the time exactly the same one. He designed the plastic bag as something that was efficient to produce and distribute yet durable enough to use repeatedly. His design required a minimal amount of raw materials while using less water and energy than the closest alternative: paper bags.
Yet the benefits of plastic bags are also the characteristics that have caused so many problems. Plastic bags became so cheap to produce that manufactures produced them on an unprecedented scale as supermarkets handed them out for free. Shops across the country handed out around seven billion plastic bags in 2014, the year before the government introduced a 5p levy. Plastic bags effectively became disposable to the average consumer. After all, it seemed that there was no need to bother bringing your bags to the supermarket each time. Instead, you could pick up new ones for free.
As a result of this single-use mindset, plastic bags have become a major contributor to pollution, ending up in oceans and rivers, and the stomachs of both land animals and marine life all over the world. The issue of plastic is serious, but are the alternatives any better?
The humble paper bag was once the ubiquitous way to carry shopping and today many people see paper bags as the ideal solution. In reality, this is far from the case.
Yes, paper bags are biodegradable and use practically zero oil to produce. But to make them requires cutting down vast areas of forest, and they use a lot of water and more energy to produce and recycle than their plastic counterpart. Paper bags are also less far durable – get one wet on your way back from the shops, and you will soon find yourself picking up groceries off the pavement.
Alternatively, there is the cotton tote bag. There is no doubt that these things are fashionable right now – walk around Western Bank Library on a busy day, and you’ll spot hundreds. However, are they good for the environment? Not unless you reuse them and reuse them a lot. Use a modern tote bag more than 100 times and maybe it will be worth its weight in material. However, unlike with flimsy paper bags, it is possible to get this much reuse out of cotton bags. Just try not to grab new ones all the time; use the ones you already have.
Top tip: look out for organic cotton bags. The production of cotton bags and garments contributes a lot to water pollution due to the use of synthetic pesticides, insecticides, and fertilisers. Buying certified organic cotton ensures that your impact on water supplies across the world is minimised.
The main problem with tote bags is the sheer amount of energy and water needed to produce each one. The average cotton t-shirt uses more than 2000 litres of water to produce – that is equivalent to three years worth of drinking water. Tote bags are the same. You may be preventing plastic from entering the oceans, but at the same time, you’re contributing to the draining of Earth’s water supplies. There is no doubt that when it comes to bags, it really is hard to win!
Hopefully, someday soon the perfect bag will be designed and enter mass production. A bag that does not require oil or large amounts of water to produce. A bag that can biodegrade in days without polluting land or water supplies while being safe to animals if they, unfortunately, mistake it for food.
Maybe after reading this article, you are confused. You’d like to do exactly what is best for the environment but are not sure as to the best way to transport your shopping. The conclusion is simple. Use bags you already own and use these bags again and again.
One or two people making large changes cannot solve the environmental problems we face. But instead, if everyone makes small changes to their lifestyle, it will make the world a better place. Reusing your bags is just one of the changes that every individual can make daily. Perhaps then, Thulin will rest just that little bit more soundly.