Reality check: The BBC does some checking!

Well, well well! The BBC has a ‘reality check’ column. It has done some reality checking and found that what Christie and others here at Whaleoil have been saying for some time is actually true.

There was never any doubt about the accuracy of Christie’s work but it is jolly nice of the BBC to finally catch up with reality. Quote.

[…] Paper bags remain popular in the US, but they fell out of use in UK supermarkets in the 1970s as plastic was seen as a more durable material.

But are paper bags more environmentally friendly than plastic ones?

The answer comes down to:

  • how much energy is used to make the bag during manufacturing?
  • how durable is the bag? (ie how many times can it be reused?)
  • how easy is it to recycle?
  • how quickly does it decompose if thrown away?

In 2011 a research paper produced by the Northern Ireland Assembly said it “takes more than four times as much energy to manufacture a paper bag as it does to manufacture a plastic bag.”

Unlike plastic bags (which the report says are produced from the waste products of oil refining) paper requires forests to be cut down to produce the bags. The manufacturing process, according to the research, also produces a higher concentration of toxic chemicals compared with making single-use plastic bags.

Paper bags also weigh more than plastic; this means transportation requires more energy, adding to their carbon footprint, the study adds. […]

In 2006, the Environment Agency examined a range of bags made from different materials to find out how many times they need to be reused in order to have a lower global warming potential than a conventional single-use plastic bag.

The study found paper bags needed to be reused at least three times, one fewer than plastic bags for life (four times). End quote.

That is so long as the bottom does not drop out when it gets a little condensation on it from the freezer products you just purchased. Quote.

At the other end of the spectrum, the Environment Agency found that cotton bags required the most number of reuses, at 131. That was down to the high amount of energy used to produce and fertilise cotton yarn.

But even if a paper bag requires the fewest reuses there is a practical consideration: will it last long enough to survive at least three trips to the supermarket?

Paper bags are not as durable as bags for life, being more likely to split or tear, especially if they get wet.

In its conclusion, the Environment Agency says “it is unlikely the paper bag can be regularly reused the required number of times due to its low durability”. […]

Cotton bags, despite being the most carbon intensive to manufacture, are the most durable and will have a much longer life.

Despite its low durability, one advantage of paper is that it decomposes much more quickly than plastic, and therefore it is less likely to be a source of litter and pose a risk to wildlife.

Paper is also more widely recyclable, while plastic bags can take between 400 and 1,000 years to decompose. End quote.

Glass takes much longer to decompose in a landfill. So what? Quote.

Paper bags require marginally fewer reuses than bags for life to make them more environmentally friendly than single-use plastic bags.

On the other hand, paper bags are less durable then other type of bags. So if customers have to replace their paper ones more frequently, it will have a greater environmental effect. […] End quote.