The plastic bag has become anathema to the effort of saving Mother Nature from humans’ toxic ways. But humans are now being blindsided by a shortage of paper bags – which have proven to be an even worse alternative.
With the old-fashioned single-use plastic bags sent to an extinction rebellion fiery hell, we are being told that the only way forward is recycling, and using environmentally-friendly alternatives made of paper, cotton, polyester or other suitable materials.
Seventy-four countries have banned single-use plastic bags made from low-density polyethylene (LDPE) plastic with varying degrees of enforcement, and 37 countries now impose a charge per bag. New York State will also join the full ban from March 1 this year, but as the need for paper bags increases, the retail industry is facing a volume crisis.
Sal Bonavita owns Key Food stores in the Bronx, he told the New York Post that because of the upcoming ban there is now a paper bag shortage, and that customers should bring reusable bags to his stores or face waddling home with groceries under their arms; “In the future I’m hoping to get some paper bags before March but I know I won’t have enough.”
According to the Earth Policy Institute approximately 2 million plastic bags are used every minute, but as the demand for paper bags soars, in return, this means that manufacturers are now worrying that there will not be enough available for up to five years.
But as retailers adopt all kinds of seemingly sustainable and reusable alternatives, research has shown that some of these options might not be so green after all. Ocean campaigner Juliet Philips says the whole industry and media is swamped with misinformation. She says one example is the UK’s ‘10 pence bag for life’ idea that was brought in 2015, which she believes has actually increased plastic consumption; “UK households are getting through 54 ‘bags for life’ now each year – suggesting that they are simply being used in the same guise as plastic bags. It’s not working.”
With numbers not adding up, the Northern Assembly in Ireland published a report titled ‘The Comparison of Environmental Impact of Plastic, Paper and Cloth Bags’. They found that it takes four times as much energy to manufacture a paper bag as it does to make a plastic one. Apart from having to cut down forests, the process uses chemical solutions and produces greenhouse gases, contributing to both air and water pollution. In short, it confirms that new paper bags generate 70 percent more air pollutants and 50 times more water pollutants than plastic bags.
So what’s the alternative for the Greta-loving eco folk of the world? With the idea of bags for life down the drain and paper bags in short supply and seemingly as bad or worse than plastic carriers – you can always go with the latest green trends and get an edible bag – like the one Marc-Henry De Jong of United Biopolymers has been working on for years, made from potato starch. The idea isn’t really catching on, though, he says: “ I believe the true answer comes from the natural world; banana leaves wrapping fruit, potato starch bags, edible packaging etc, but those politicians and decision makers high up must support the start ups otherwise larger recycling manufacturers will keep winning large scale supermarket contracts.”
If your head hurts from trying to decide which way is the greenest, perhaps it’s just easier to walk to the shops, use an old fashioned wicker basket like Mrs Doutbfire – or simply cradle your groceries in your hands, like a wobbly octopus.