You most likely wouldn't be too surprised to see that we do not have any plastic bags available in the shop, nor do we intend to stock them in the future. Interestingly though, you may be interested to learn why we almost didn't offer any bags at all?!
Paper bags are widely seen as a step in the right direction from an environmental point of view, and it seems that more and more supermarkets and brands are switching their packaging over to boost their green credentials. But is paper the answer?
So What Are The Options?
Plastic is produced from waste byproducts of oil refining. We know that plastic tends to stick around (between 400 and 1000 years in fact), and that as it breaks down into smaller and smaller tiny toxic pieces, it will find it's way into our rivers, pollute our oceans, and is even now present in our food chain. Yum. Whilst plastic carrier bags are recyclable, they cannot go in our local kerbside recycling collection, and have to be taken to special recycling points at local supermarkets, so only a very small percentage of them ever get recycled.
Paper can require forests to be felled, and the manufacturing processes use toxic chemicals. They are also thicker, and weigh more, meaning their transportation footprint is higher. Paper comes into it's own though at the end of it's life, where it is easily recycled, or, should it makes its' way into the natural environment, it will break down easily causing no harm to wildlife as it does so.
Cotton has a huge footprint, mostly, in terms of water. 1kg of cotton uses between 1,000-2,000 litres of water in it's production. Phew! Cotton bags, however, are much much stronger than their plastic or paper equivalents, and can be washed, dried, and reused many many times.
In all, the carbon footprint of an average plastic carrier bag is around 3g, whereas the paper equivalent is between 12g (for a recycled paper bag) up to 80g (virgin pulp). (source: How Bad Are Bananas? by Mike Berners-Lee)
What's the Answer?
It's simple really, whichever bag you have, reuse it, then reuse it again, and again! A paper bag needs to be reused 3 times to have the same carbon footprint of it's plastic equivalent, compared to a Bag for Life at 4-12 times (dependant on the thickness of the plastic, they vary wildly), or a cotton bag at 131 times!
Interestingly though, learning to juggle has only the teeny tiniest carbon footprint, and means you don't need a bag at all, so long as you only buy three (or four if you're showing off) things at a time. Juggling is also reusable, recyclable, and biodegradable. Juggling will also give you something to do during times of boredom (lockdowns perhaps?), and make you at least 200% more attractive to whoever it is you want to be attractive too. #Fact.
We had long conversations about whether or not to simply not offer bags at all in the shop when we were first looking at setting up, as we wanted to encourage others to use what's already out there. I mean, let's face it, there are enough bags and bottles in the world to keep us going for a very long time! However, we decided that we didn't want to discourage anyone from taking that first step into making more ethical, and less wasteful choices, and as my own experiences of the plastic problem were a big part of why we got into zero waste living in the first place, we went with paper.
Things to Watch Out For...
Plastic Bags: Locally we have recycling points at most of the major supermarkets, however, they often get contaminated with the wrong types of plastic, rendering everything in there unrecyclable. This is largely (in my opinion at least) an education issue, as well as a labelling one. To most consumers, a clear plastic bag is a clear plastic bag, but the materials can be very different. The clear plastic bag that you'll find salad leaves in, is made from a totally different material to plastic bags given at the checkouts. A basic way to tell them apart is the finger stretch test, try to poke a finger through the bag, if it stretches, it can go in with the carrier bags, of not, it's into landfill I'm afraid.
Paper, except it's plastic: Some paper still contains plastic. Most cardboard that is used in packaging has at least some plastic in it, whether in the glue holding it together, or coated over the box to give it a shiny surface. If it has a sheen, it probably has plastic on it. In fact, even some matte finish cardboard has a very thin layer of plastic on it too. It can be almost impossible to avoid, but recycled kraft boxes or brown corrugated cardboard are about the only safe bets! Even till receipts have plastic in (hence we don't have a receipt printer in the shop), and they commonly contain BPA, a known carcinogen which is especially harmful to pregnant women, babies and infants. Basically it's not something you'd carry around in your hand if you knew what was in it. Crazy stuff!
To note though, it is a relatively straight forward process to seperate these paper fibres from the plastic during the recycling process, so you can still at least recycle them without worry.