You may have seen the recent news articles ‘Plastic bags were invented to help save the planet’. Well this is true. They were originally designed as a multi use item to replace single use paper bags that were contributing to deforestation. But unfortunately the low cost of making plastic items and the throw away world we now live in, caused plastic bags to be viewed as a single use item. They are now a huge part of the plastic pollution problem across the lands and in the rivers and seas.

Plastic bags actually take very little energy and oil to produce, meaning from an environmental point of view they are more environmentally friendly to produce than paper or cotton. HOWEVER, what many of the stories are neglecting to remember is that the production is not the end of the environmental journey.

“To be as environmentally friendly as a single-use plastic bag that’s getting recycled… a paper bag needs to be used at least three times, while cotton bags need to be used at least 131 times.”

Laura Foster – BBC Environmental Reporter

To understand the true environmental impact of a bag, you have to take into account:

  • How much energy does it take to make the bag?
  • Where do the raw materials come from – are they sustainable?
  • Where is it produced and how much transportation does it need to get to the end user?
  • How many times can it be reused?
  • How easy is it to recycle?
  • If thrown away, how quickly does it decompose?

So how do we know what is best?

Paper bags come from sustainable materials, can be reused a number of times, are widely recyclable and if thrown away they decompose quickly. But they have a slightly higher footprint when they are made.

Plastic bags are energy efficient to make and transport, but are not widely recycled and are often thrown away where they can take 400-1,000 years to decompose, shedding microplastics into the environment as they do so. Stronger woven ‘bags for life’ can be used multiple times, but unfortunately are very difficult to get recycled.

Cotton bags take a lot more energy to make in the first place and you would need to use them for hundreds of times, but they are designed for this. They can be reused and remade into alternative products at the end of their lives or if they do end up in landfill their natural fibres can break down within 6-12 months.

Our suggestion…

The best thing we can all do is reuse. Whatever bags you have, including plastic, reuse them as long as they last. Once they are no longer useable make sure they get recycled and don’t go to landfill.

If you have run out of bags altogether, then buy a couple of good quality cotton bags that will last a lifetime. If you do just one shopping trip a week with them you will have used them 104 times in the first two years alone. They are comfortable, strong, can be washed if food is spilt in them and when they eventually are beyond use, they can be used as cleaning cloths, or recycled through a local clothing bank scheme.

Caroline Talbot
Author: Caroline Talbot