Good old David Attenborough. National treasure and friendly grandfather figure. A cosy presence. A soothing voice guiding us gently through the wonders of the natural world as we sit, cup of tea in hand, on the sofa of a Sunday evening. A reassuring figure, a staple of nature documentaries. A reminder that the world is going down the drain.
Sorry, back up a minute. What?
Amid the wonders thrown up on screen during 2017’s Blue Planet 2, there was also an undercurrent of despair. A feeling that a tipping point was approaching. If, indeed, it has not already been reached.
Of all the many problems highlighted by Blue Planet, one of the most striking was the problem of plastic. Unlike arctic sea ice, or melting glaciers, a plastic sea is something tangible. We can see it. The impact is felt not at arms-length, as satellite photos show the steady retreat of a glacier, but in more immediate and heart-wrenching ways. Fish swimming through a sea of plastic, a hawksbill turtle wrapped in a plastic sack.
And the link back to you and to me is far more understandable.
Driving a car, running the central heating. These things are somehow tied up with the global climate breakdown. But the link is hard to fathom. The connection between what I do on a daily basis and the retreating arctic sea ice is a hard one to get my head around, undeniable though it surely is.
A dead sea bird, its legs entangled in a plastic bag, it is easier to understand how that stems from something that I use.
It is encouraging, then, that the response to this plastic proliferation came loud and fast. People have swung into action, spurred on by the devastating sights swimming out of the television every Sunday evening. And that is to be applauded. But have we got it right?
Nothing is ever simple
It would seem an easy equation. We have a sea full of plastic bags. We use plastic bags. Less plastic bags equals less plastic in the ocean.
But, as I have found when looking into anything to do with the environment and creating a more sustainable world, there is never a perfect answer.
Let us set out our stall here. A few basic points about which, I hope, we can all agree.
- Plastic does not belong in the ocean
- Constantly using new plastic bags, bottles, and other containers contributes to the overall amount of plastic in the world, some of which is ending up in our oceans
Accepting this, the simple solution is to stop using plastic. The less plastic we use, the less plastic being produced, the smaller the overall plastic problem.
But if not plastic, then what?
Recycling isn’t everything
We are all encouraged to recycle. And we should. Recycling something is better than throwing it away.
As you know, I make a virtue of the fact that I use 100% recycled (post-consumer waste) materials for my prints, my cards, my paper bags, and my shipping envelopes. It is important to me to be an outlet for recycled materials and to contribute to the demand for recycled products.
But recycling is only part of the process. Focusing on what we do with a product at the end of its life cycle does not paint a true picture of the overall “cost” of that product.
The overall cost to the world comes from the way a product is made, transported, used, and disposed of. And it is when we look at that larger picture that things get tricky.
Plastic isn’t that costly to make
In this excellent look at the myths that have sprung up around plastic waste, environmental blogger The Zero Waster points to research that shows paper bags have a much higher carbon footprint than plastic bags.
Why? Because the process of making a paper bag uses a lot more energy. Therefore, it comes with a higher carbon footprint and a higher cost to the environment.
So if every plastic bag in existence was in fact a paper one then, yes, the problem of a plastic ocean would go away, but the cost to the environment as a whole would be so very much higher. Which, in turn, is unlikely to be good for the oceans, so the fish are still no better off.
And, let’s be honest, plastic is more durable than paper. Where a plastic bag can be reused again and again, a paper bag is liable to rip and tear and need to be sent for recycling.
Hang on, didn’t you say you use paper bags?
I did say that. And I do use paper bags. I have a stash of them here next to my desk and I use them when I take my prints and cards out on the road to craft fairs and shows.
So are these better or worse than plastic bags?
The truth is, I don’t know. I needed bags for my business and I chose to use paper ones. These are recycled bags, so at least they are extending the life cycle of the paper that made them (albeit at a “cost”, due to the processing it will have taken to turn them from paper waste into a new paper bag). They are also reasonably robust, so they should be able to be used more than once. But are they as strong as a plastic bag? No, they are not. They will not stand up to prolonged use and will fail and will then (I hope) rejoin the recycling process to be turned into something new.
That process is, itself, a finite one. It is estimated that paper can only be recycled five to seven times before it is no longer a viable option.
A better plan is not to hand out bags at all. To have my customers arrive armed with their own bag, reusing an old plastic carrier or a handbag or a cotton bag.
Reusable bags are what we need
While a bag is being reused it means two things:
- New bags do not have to be created in order for you to carry your stuff
- The bag is not being thrown away, so it cannot end up in the ocean or swirling around the countryside
This is true whatever the make-up of your bag, whether paper or plastic or cotton. A reusable bag is therefore something we should be looking for.
Remember, though, nothing is ever simple
I sell cotton bags. I should be telling you that they are the answer. But they too come with a cost.
That cost comes through the water it takes to grow the cotton, as well as the chemicals used in the farming process. According to the WWF, it takes 20,000 litres of water to make a kilogram of cotton, which is approximately one t-shirt’s worth. 20,000 litres! Average consumption in the UK is 150 litres per person per day, so 20,000 litres is approximately four months’ worth of water use.
Research cited by The Zero Waster states that a standard cotton bag needs to be used 173 times before it becomes more environmentally friendly than a single-use plastic bag.
Now, my cotton bags are made from 100% organic cotton and the company that supply them, Continental Clothing, have reduced the carbon footprint of these products through:
a combination of innovative product design, low impact organic agriculture, efficiency in manufacturing, and by replacing standard grid electricity with renewable wind power. We do not use carbon offsets and our footprint calculations are certified by the Carbon Trust Certifications in the U.K.
Across their range of organic cotton clothing (under the EarthPositive brand), they have reduced their carbon footprint by approximately 90%, which makes for a lower overall “cost” and, I believe, a better option when shopping for a reusable bag.
My head is spinning, what is the right thing to do?
Ultimately, plastic is not good for the environment. And plastic in our oceans is a particularly bad thing.
First things first, let’s try to improve that position. What plastic we do use should be disposed of properly, preferably recycled, so that its life cycle can be extended and it doesn’t end up in landfill or cast into the ocean.
We should also stop adding to the plastic problem. Plastic drinking straws, plastic bottles, plastic coffee cups. These are all unnecessary. Make a choice not to use single-use plastics.
What plastic we do have, we should reuse. A plastic bag in your cupboard is not a bad thing to be hidden away. Keep using it and using it until it can’t be used any more. Then recycle it.
If you must use a new bag, ask the shop for a biodegradable one. Use it for as long as possible and then make sure it goes in the compost.
When you do need a new bag, make an informed choice about what bag is best. Look for something that can be reused again and again. If you choose a cotton bag choose a good quality one and make sure you make the most of it.
Make sure that all of the benefits of having a reusable bag are not undone by having a dozen different cotton bags sat in your cupboard. Each time you choose a new cotton bag, think of the cost that has been incurred in order to produce it. Make sure it is a necessary cost.
Yes, I would like you to choose to buy one of my cotton bags, but I want you to understand the cost of your decision. Buy it because you need it and will reuse it again and again. If eventually it rips then patch it up, repair it, and make it last as long as possible.
Make David proud.
If you definitely do need a new bag and want an organic cotton option printed with water-based inks, I have a small selection of Dartmoor-inspired bags available in my shop.