The Covid 19 lockdown brought in a refocus on the use of plastic bags in the retail industry in USA as ironically it was believed that plastic bags use would be restrictive to the spread of the virus. Reusable bags were thought of spreading the virus and disposable plastic bags were considered safer.
This belief led to increased use of plastic cellophane wrapping during the pandemic. Now when we analyze this, we come to some important facts about usage of the right kind of materials in the retail industry.
Now the point to understand is that if plastic is recyclable, why are plastic bags being banned?
Although plastics are recyclable, plastic bags are not typically accepted by curbside recyclers, causing them to end up as pollution on land and in water. Even when disposed of properly, plastic bags can take up to 1000 years to decompose and break down, generating large amounts of garbage over long periods. Improperly discarded bags have polluted waterways, clogged sewers and been found in oceans, affecting the habitat of marine creatures.
Why Should We Ban Single-Use Plastic Bags?
A large issue is that plastic bags are not biodegradable - Plastic bags break down into smaller pieces of plastic known as micro plastics. When plastic bags break down into micro-particles, the tiny pieces can be mistaken for food and is ingested by sea life. Micro plastics can release toxic chemicals into our food and water systems and can be harmful to human and animal health.
Less landfill waste - Americans use approximately 100 billion plastic bags a year, with the majority of them ending up in landfills. According to Waste Management, approximately only 1% of bags get returned for recycling each year.
Are There Reasons Not To Ban Plastic Bags?
It is a more sanitary option - Typically, reusable bags are not being washed as often as they should be, allowing them to harbor bacteria and pose a health risk for consumers.
An assessment of the bacteria in grocery bags, led by University of Arizona and Loma Linda University researchers, found that almost all of the reusable bags randomly selected from customers entering a grocery store contained large amounts of bacteria. Nearly half contained coliform bacteria, and 12% contained E. Coli.
Switching to reusable bags doesn’t mean they are more environmentally friendly.
Whether you are switching to thicker plastic bags not covered under the ban or cloth bags, those bags aren't reused enough to make up for the extra resources and carbon footprint involved in their creation.
A study by The Environment Agency found alternatives to plastic such as cotton bags would need to be used nearly 400 times in order to be below the global warming potential of HDPE single-use plastic bags that are reused a total of three times.
So, what are the feasible alternatives?
There are several single-use plastic bag replacement options available. Every option has a different sustainability footprint when it comes to the energy and water used during the manufacturing process or its end-of-life disposal. Some options will be more sustainable than others. If you are looking to use the ban as a way to meet sustainability goals, selecting an alternative material that leaves a smaller footprint on the earth will be the best option. If you are looking for the most cost-effective alternative, you may not be getting the most environmentally friendly alternative. The following alternatives are listed from the least expensive alternative material to most expensive alternative material.
Plastic Bag Alternatives
Non-woven polypropylene (PP)
Woven Polypropylene (PP) Bags
1. Paper Bags
To be accepted under most local legislation, paper bags must contain at least 40% post consumer recycled content and can not contain any old growth fiber.
There are several different types of paper bags that can be a good alternative to single-use plastic bags. Paper bag types include:
Twist Handle Shopping Bags
Pros: They are reusable or recyclable. Paper bags can be reused a couple of times.
Cons: Paper bags made from recycled fiber still require more fossil fuels to produce and manufacture than plastic bags. If they get wet, they lose strength and can tear. To avoid torn bags, many people “double-bag.” Double-bagging increases the amount of paper bags you will need to purchase, and it increases the amount of paper waste.
In some areas, bans will require the businesses to charge (typically $0.10) to the consumer for the use of paper bags. Paper bags are heavier than single-use plastic bags. Their heavier weight increases transportation costs, gas emissions, and waste disposal weight.
Disposal: Paper bags are recyclable.
2. Reusable Plastic Bags
Reusable plastic bags can be made from post consumer recycled content or post industrial content. They must be at least 2.25 millimeters thick to be accepted under most bans.
Pro Tip: What types of plastic bags are banned?
In most cases, single-use plastic bags, otherwise known as t-shirt bags, are being banned. Single-use, lightweight plastic bags are generally considered to be plastic bags which are less than 2.25 millimeters or 57.17 microns thick. But, depending on your local legislation, bans can cover bags up to 12 mils.
Pros: Reusable plastic bags can be reused multiple times. Some manufacturers claim reusability up to 125 times. A 2014 study by Clemson University found that reusable LDPE and polypropylene bags have a lower environmental impact than plastic bags found in supermarkets if they are reused enough times.
Cons: Although they are reusable, people generally do not reuse the bag enough times to make up for the added plastic material. This same study found that about 40% of shoppers forget to bring their reusable bags. These bags are discarded before their useful life and can lead to increased litter. When these bags are thrown away before being used for their intended life, the effects on the environment can be counterproductive.
Disposal: Plastic bags are recyclable, but they are not typically accepted by curbside recyclers. Plastic bags should be deposited at recycling facilities or special drop-off locations like grocery stores, where the bags will be collected and recycled separately.
3. Cotton Bags
Cotton bags can be made from traditional, organic, or recycled cotton. Traditional cotton is made from a renewable crop source, but is typically treated with chemicals and pesticides. Organic cotton is grown without pesticides, reducing the negative environmental footprint of cotton production. Recycled cotton is reclaimed organic and traditional cotton.
Pros: Cotton bags are designed to be reused hundreds of times. Most cotton bags are easy to clean. They can be machine washed in cold water.
Cons: Cotton bags require more energy than single-use plastic bags to manufacture, impacting their environmental footprint. They should be washed regularly to prevent cross-contamination.
Disposal: Cotton bags should be incinerated at the end of their life.
4. Non-woven Polypropylene (PP) Bags
Non-woven polypropylene bags are made from polypropylene plastic. They can be made from recycled plastic.
Pros: Non-woven polypropylene bags are extremely strong and durable. They are intended to be reused until they become damaged.
Cons: Reusable bags are not being washed as often as they should be. Bags can harbor bacteria in between uses and pose a health risk for consumers. Only 15% of people follow the recommended cleaning procedures to ensure safe use of reusable bags
Disposal: Non-woven polypropylene bags can be recycled.
5. Compostable Bags
Compostable bags are made from renewable raw materials. They are certified to break down in either a composting facility or home composting environment.
Pros: They break down, leaving a smaller footprint on the environment. Soy based inks can be used to print on the bag without compromising the compost ability of the bag.
Cons: Compostable bags have a limited shelf-life. They need to be stored in cool, dark, and dry places for optimal shelf-life. If they are not stored properly, they will begin to lose some of their strength and not perform as designed. Sometimes they look extremely similar to single-use plastic bags, and this can be confusing to your customers.
Disposal: Compostable bags should be composted at the end of their life. Depending on the manufacturer, some compostable bags may need to be commercially composted, meaning they will not break down at home. Look for third party certifications like ASTM D6400 or BPI which certify the bag is compostable and note where they can be composted.
6. Woven Polypropylene (PP) Bags
This type of bag is produced from recycled polypropylene. The plastic is stretched into threads which are woven together to create a fabric. This fabric is then sewn into reusable bags.
Pros: They are strong and durable and intended to be reused until damaged.
Cons: They are typically not washed as often as they should be. Bags which are not regularly
washed can cause cross contamination.
Disposal: Woven polypropylene bags should be dropped off at your local recycling facility. Jute bags are made from vegetable fibers that are spun into durable and strong strands.
Pros: They are an environmentally friendly option that is made from a naturally renewable resource. It breaks down into organic materials. They can be reused until the material starts to fray.
Cons: Jute bags are difficult to clean. Sometimes they are treated with chemicals to make them resistant to moisture, which negates their ability to be composted.
Disposal: At the end of their useful life, they should be commercially composted.
Conclusion: Transitioning away from single-use plastic bags may be difficult depending on your business' budget, wants, and needs. There are several effective alternative options to replace single-use plastic bags that are accepted under local bans and regulations. Making a complete and abrupt transition from the usage of the single use plastic bags may be difficult as a lot depends on commercial considerations and effective adaptability to usage, however there are multiple opportunities to effectively use other alternative materials in conjunction and considerations under the purview of the holistic international bans and domestic regulations. It simply is the matter of understanding the impact of the usage and building up public awareness.
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