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Which Carrier Bag is Best for the Environment? Blog Post

22nd October 2019

Which Carrier Bag is Best for the Environment?

Organic Cotton Carrier Bags vs Single Use Plastic Bags

In the conversation about carrier bags over the past few years, the humble single use carrier bag hasn’t faired well. You’d be totally justified in thinking that the story is black and white. Reusable carrier bags = good, plastic single carrier bags = bad! However a study from the Ministry of Environment and Food of Denmark in 2018 entitled ‘Life Cycle Assessment of grocery carrier bags’ shows that the truth about the material we use to carry our purchases is actually more like a variable shade of grey.

Although a recent article from Medium.com shows some of the omissions and shortcomings in the Denmark study, that looked specifically into plastic vs fabric carrier bags, it also helps to highlight some key findings that can’t be ignored.

The narrative around the material we use for our printed carrier bags isn’t as simple and straight forward as much of the press would have us believe and much of the environmental impact actually comes down to the choices we make as consumers after the bag reaches our homes.

The Medium.com post was inspired by the writer seeing a number of viral news articles on social media about the impacts of carrier bags, reporting that organic cotton bags are much worse than plastic bags and conventional cotton bags better than their organic versions. The author Parkpoom Kometsopha admits that usually studies like this have an agenda and tend to use invalid references - but the Denmark study comes from a country committed to sustainability, so it was something to take notice of.

Long Life Carrier Bags

One of the alarming conclusions from the study is that an organic cotton bag must be used 20,000 times in order to meet the environmental performance of LDPE plastic bag, hence it’s viral spread on facebook and twitter, the article by Komestopha highlights the reasons behind this and the specific enviromental impacts that are being assessed.

Some of the specific environmental impacts in the study look heavily at the manufacturing process of each type of bag, however much of the press around single use plastic bags is around the disposal of those bags into the landfill and their impact on marine life. It’s almost as if we all need in-depth academic knowledge to make decisions on the best bags to provide for our customers.

But as I mentioned earlier, consumers have power, how consumers go on to use or recycle our bags can help inform the retailers they shop with about the most eco-friendly bag to supply. As the writer concludes in the medium.com article, “reusable bags are indeed better than single use ones…” giving the caveat “…we must reuse our bags again and again”.

The more involved the manufacturing process is, the more we need to reuse the bag for it to be better for the environment, so with organic cotton weighing heavily on one side of the scale - requiring the most reuse, we don’t want to stockpile these in our cupboards only ever using them once. At the other end of the scale we have our single use carriers that we don’t want to end up on mass in landfill and our oceans, we need to make it easier for customers to recycle their bags, providing more opportunities for recycling and educating customers on where to take them, ensuring that they don’t float around in our seas for years to come.

The Right Printed Carrier Bag for Your Customer

Thankfully we don’t only have these extremes to choose from when selecting printed packaging for our stores… we have a wide range of options that sit more centrally on the carrier bag scale including reusable plastic carrier bags, now known as ‘Bags for Life’, potato starch carrier bags which are fully compostable and the original paper bags all of which have features that for many retailers make them the very best choice for their customers.

So much comes down to knowing your customer and products and finding the right bag to do the best job, adding to a pile of bags in the bottom of a cupboard doesn’t improve the visibility of a brand and isn’t then as good for the environment as it can first appear, a bag that doesn’t last long enough to get purchases to their destination tarnishes the shopping experience and providing a compostable bag somewhere where food caddies aren’t used could prove pointless.

Printed bags can substantially improve the visibility of your brand and messages, providing that walking advertisement, but a light hidden under a bush doesn’t illuminate anything, so lets ensure that every printed carrier bag is something your customers will want to use time and time again as then everybody benefits.

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