Plastic carrier bags have somehow become one of the most hated things in the world and often taken as the prime examples of the horrible plastic pollution. However, paper and cotton bags are much worse for the environment if we consider the whole environmental impact from production phase to transportation. In fact, the much-hated plastic bags are actually created to help save the environment.
According to his son Raoul Thulin, the creator of the plastic carrier bags Sten Gustaf Thulin designed the plastic bags to save the planet (BBC News, n.d.). In Sweden 1959, the Swedish engineer Sten Gustaf Thulin designed the plastic carrier bags to prevent trees being taken down for paper bags. His original idea was for the bag to be light and extra durable so that people can use and reuse the bags repeatedly for multiple times. The man himself always carried a plastic bag in his pocket so that he can reuse one bag again and again when he went shopping. However, the bags were so convenient and easy to obtain that people were lazy carrying one around and throwing them away after only one use. Hence, the plastic bags became single-use plastic carrier bags even though they weren’t originally designed to be single-use.
Figure 1: The plastic carrier bag design and usage instruction when it first came out
Source: jericlcat, www.boredpanda.com
Many countries have now charge for plastic bags, including the UK, Ireland, the USA, and many have now banned the plastic carrier bags such as single-use T shirt bags and single use grocery bags altogether. People are switching back to paper and cotton bags with the aim of helping the environment.
On the one hand, a paper bag is manufactured with 3.4 times more energy and 6 times solid weight compared to a plastic bag (Population Alert, n.d.). As the paper carrier bags are heavier than the plastic carrier bags, there will be extra environmental impact during transportation of these bags to the final destination where it is used.
On the other hand, cotton bags are even worse than paper carrier bags. Cotton is a water-intensive crop to produce. It carries the same concerns with the fast-fashion industry where they use an extensive amount of cotton in their production.
Figure 2: Environmental impact of different type of carrier bag during production phase
On the contrary, plastic carrier bags are very efficient to produce. They require a small amount of oil and extra little energy to produce. To have the same environmental impact as a recycled single-use bag, a paper bag must be reused at minimum three times while cotton bag needs to be used at least 131 times.
If you want to save the environment, the key point here is to reuse the bags you already have over and over again to reduce the amount of waste into the environment. This also increase the life-cycle of the product and improve the overall efficiency of process.
BBC News. (n.d.). BBC News. Retrieved from BBC News Science and Environment: https://www.bbc.com/news/av/science-environment-50043369
Population Alert. (n.d.). Retrieved from Plastic bag myth: http://populationalert.org/GlobalWarming/plastic_bag_myth.htm