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single use plastic bag

Which carrier bag is the most environmentally friendly?

Posted in Recycling
On 06 Aug 2020
By Jessica Keynes

In 2015 it became mandatory for large businesses to charge for all single-use plastic carrier bags, leading to supermarkets and other retailers to cut the number of single-use carrier bags and introduce a variety of ‘bag for life’ alternatives.

According to the government: “The scheme aims to reduce the use of single-use plastic carrier bags, and the litter associated with them, by encouraging people to re-use bags" but what are the most environmentally friendly carrier bags?

When answering this question there certain factors that need to be considered from the initial sourcing of materials, manufacturing and transportation of the carrier bag to its end-of-life journey with the customer. How long a carrier bag is used and how it is disposed of when unusable influences its environmental impact and any bag that ultimately becomes litter is automatically the least environmentally friendly choice.

Common carrier bags available in supermarkets and retailers

HDPE carrier bag: Commonly recognised as a single-use carrier bag usually charged at 5p

single use plastic bag

LDPE carrier bag: Heavy-duty plastic bags, commonly referred to as a ‘bag for life’ and readily available in supermarkets for a slightly higher cost than single-use bags but can be replaced free of charge when returned.

bag for life

Non-woven polypropylene (PP) bags

The PP bag is a semi-rigid bag that is stronger and more durable than a bag for life and is intended to be reused multiple times.

non-woven carrier bag 

Cotton bags

Also known as a tote or canvas bag, it is designed to be used repeatedly for a long time.

Cotton carrier bag 

Carrier bags and their Global Warming Potential (GWP)

Data from WRAP’s report Quantifying the composition of municipal waste shows the global warming potential (GWP) of single-use and bag for life carrier bags when not reused after their primary use.

This table shows that reusable carrier bags, without reuse, have a higher GWP than conventional HDPE carrier bags. Note: The cotton carrier bag is not shown because its GWP is more than ten times that of any other carrier bag.

plastic bag GWP figure 5.2

However, the table below demonstrates how GWP is dramatically reduced when the reusable bags are used for their intended use – to be reused.

plastic bag GWP figure 5.2

This information also poses another question, how many times should you re-use a reusable?

How many times do you need to use a reusable bag?

Simply put – as many times as you possibly can!

But if you want to delve into the numbers, WRAP estimated that a paper bag should be used at least 3 times, 4 times for an LDPE bag for life, 11 times for a non-woven bag, and 131 times for a cotton bag. The more times a bag is reused the more eco-friendly it becomes so it’s important to consider a bag’s durability to ensure it can not only reach the suggested number of uses but surpass them.

Carrier bag type

Number of uses

Paper bag

3

LDPE “bag for life”

4

Non-woven PP bag

11

Cotton bag

131

It’s also worth considering how times you can reuse a bag. If you already have multiple cotton bags which you use regularly and wouldn’t benefit from another, a paper bag can serve its initial purpose and go on to be reused for as long as possible before being recycled in your household recycling.

What carrier bag is the most environmentally friendly?

Unfortunately, there is no one answer to this question and is highly dependent on the carrier’s -overall life cycle and specifically its end-of-life journey once it has been used for its primary use (carrying shopping from the store to your home).

The data above can only tell us so much and is based on hypothetical outcomes. A carrier bag is only as environmentally friendly as we make it. Plastic bags may have the lowest environmental impacts initially but the data doesn’t take into account when the carrier bag escapes into the environment as litter.

How many plastic bags have you seen blowing down the road or read about polluting oceans and rivers?

Despite the ongoing single-use plastic crisis, there are some amazing examples of innovation which best represent what an environmentally carrier bag looks like and some of them include plastic:

  • Bags made from 100% recycled material, such as old PET bottles (on-the-go drinks)
  • Bio-based plastic that replaces virgin materials and helps companies divest from oil production with no loss of performance. These plastics are technically recyclable, unlike their biodegradable and compostable counterparts.
  • Global social enterprises that clean waste from land and rivers using collectors who are paid a fair wage in developing countries to provide recycled materials for manufacturing around in the world.
  • A Danish company is also making recycled HDPE pellets from old fishing nets recovered from the North Sea to make new products, including carrier bags!
  • And a UK retailer uses offcut fabrics from their clothing manufacturers to make cotton totes which dramatically reduces the production emissions.

With technological advances, it isn’t unreasonable to believe that the manufacturing impact of packaging and carrier bags can continue to decrease. Biffa has invested in producing HDPE and PP plastic pellets from recycled plastic waste while paper recycling can improve its efficiency by segregated waste streams to provide high-quality recycled materials.

When deciding which carrier to buy or supply to your customers, consider how many times it will be reused and be aware of how they can be reused, recycled or disposed of responsibly to avoid any unwanted waste escaping as litter and causing havoc for wildlife.

If you’re a business looking to provide an eco-friendly carrier bag, get in touch with your account manager or call us on 0800 307 307 and we’d be happy to help advise you.