much ado about eco bags

Photo courtesy of http://www.greenpacks.org

Plastic, paper or eco bag?

Have you been following the eco bag bandwagon? If yes, is it for reasons that you know for yourself?

What if I tell you that eco bag use does not necessarily/automatically equate with eco-friendliness? (Note to environmental activists: Please read through before deciding to burn me alive.)

The eco bag craze has definitely caught on in the Philippines. Even my neighborhood bargain grocery store has stopped using plastic carriers and has posted signs urging customers to go the eco bag route; failure to do so means having to clutch/hug your purchased items home except if they’re small enough (like a bar of soap, or a carrot) to fit into the teeny paper sacks they issue.

Considerable business has been yielded by the eco bag phenomenon in recent years, with most major supermarkets now  selling their own variants and both microentrepreneurs and multinational brands mass-producing in all makes, sizes and designs. I myself, with a group of college friends, dipped my toes into this venture some time back, profiting from the Christmas bazaar crowd of Manila when eco bags were still the novel green gift of the moment. I guess that trend is far from dying down; not a single yuletide went by in the last five years without my having received one, or six, or a dozen eco bags for presents.

On one hand: Companies have been promoting/giving out eco bags as part of their corporate social responsibility programs; local government units have gone so far as to outlaw plastic bags and mandate the use of eco bags in big and small commercial establishments; and huge campaigns have been launched and carried out to promote their benefits to Mother Earth.

On the other hand: I have heard plastic producers/merchants and advocates claim that the production of eco bags, as well as of paper, takes a much greater toll on the environment than the production of plastic bags, because of the huge differences in the natural resources required in the respective processes.

So. I decided, for my own sanity, to try to get for myself an objective (albeit a lay person’s) view of pertinent facts related to this whole plastic-versus-paper-versus-eco bag debate. I did not anticipate that this would entail reading dozens of articles, of course.

Anyway, among the significant things I found: The Environment Agency (the leading public body protecting and improving the environment in England and Wales”) published in February 2011 a life cycle assessment of supermarket carrier bags in the UK to determine environmental impacts of their production, use and disposal, particularly in terms of global warming. The study found that:

  • A paper bag must be used more than 2 times to have a global warming potential below that of a regular, lightweight single-use plastic bag.
  • The figure becomes 131 for a cotton bag. Yes, you must use a cotton bag more than 131 times to have a global warming potential below that of a regular, lightweight single-use plastic bag!
  • If a regular plastic bag is used 3 times, the number of uses it will take for a paper bag and a cotton bag to have lower global warming impacts than it can go up to 9 (paper) and…wait for it…393 (cotton).

Let me rephrase that:

Unless I use my cotton eco bag more than 393 times, it would end up having more impact on global warming than a single plastic bag that I can use 3 times.

SAY WHUUUUT??!!

To be fair, the study admits that it does not consider the effects of littering, among other things. And we all have been told about the grave consequences brought about by plastic litter.

Still, the study points to the fact that eco bags do have their own significant share of detrimental impact on the environment.

I also came across this bit from the Wall Street Journal, which made things seem even grimmer.

Then, I found this Philippine Star article, in which a Filipino environmentalist reasons,

We have undoubtedly seen our grandparents, if not our parents, toting the sturdy bayong back in their days. Our bayong then was either made of buri, pandan, abaca, and various other organic local materials. These materials are as naturally biodegradable as they are tough in carrying heavy groceries. Nowadays, we also have canvas bags available  also made of organic, biodegradable fibers.”

This made me realize I simply need to be wiser in choosing my eco bags, as NOT ALL ECO BAGS ARE CREATED EQUAL (with respect to earth friendliness). An eco bag, even if stamped with some environmental, feel-good message, can actually be harmful, depending on what it’s made of and how it was produced.

It also dawned on me that my choice of bag is not the end-all and be-all of this discussion. The Environment Agency study states this point among its conclusions:

Whatever type of bag is used, the key to reducing the impacts is to reuse it as many times as possible and where reuse for shopping is not practicable, other reuse, e.g. to replace bin liners, is beneficial.”

Common sense, right?

The more number of times you use a bag, the longer its life is, and the longer it will take for it to become waste. By some stroke of genius (like perennial recycling/reuse, maybe? I actually have no idea), some of us may even be able to prevent a bag from ever becoming garbage–who knows?

Thing is, I forget my eco bags at home…a lot. Like maybe half the time.

Plus, I think I now have a lot more eco bags than I can actually use. They just keep multiplying in my house!

HERE, THEN, ARE RESOLUTIONS THAT I PRAY I CAN KEEP:

  1. Always keep one or two eco bags in my bag, in my office drawer, in the car, and under the kitchen sink.
  2. Keep a collapsible crate in the car, as advised in this Washington Post article. Also washable bins (such as old ice cream bins, or even an old kaldero) or a cooler, for wet/frozen goods.
  3. No more buying of eco bags. I don’t know what materials the eco bags in my current inventory are made of, so the best way I can handle them now is just to use them as many times as humanly possible.
  4. Return eco bag giveaways. I really don’t need or want any more. UNLESS they’re personal presents!
  5. Continue with, and even improve on, my practice of weekly meal planning and grocery shopping, to avoid unnecessary and urgent trips to the supermarket. If I program my wet market and supermarket visits well enough, I should always be ready with my carriers.
  6. If for whatever reason I still end up running to the store last-minute, and I still forget to bring eco bags (I am a human Dory, after all), I’ll take one or all of the following measures:
    • If I’m getting groceries and have a vehicle, I can bring the items straight from the cashier to the shopping cart to the car. No bags needed.
    • If I’m commuting or if the supermarket doesn’t allow carts to be brought all the way to the parking area, I will choose to buy only what I can put inside the bag I’m already carrying. I will postpone the other purchases to my next scheduled shopping trip.
    • If it becomes absolutely necessary for me to get another bag (“We have eleven people coming over? Oh, they’re there now?!?!?!”), I will take every effort to examine what it’s made of before I buy. Go bayong!
    • If I’m at our neighborhood talipapa: It’s less than a hundred meters from my house, so I really have no excuse!

As for the plastic and paper bags that I already have and that I know, somehow I will still occasionally get, I just have to resolve never to throw them away after first use, and to use them as many times as possible, too, the way I would my eco bags (well, maybe not as many times).

After all that I’ve said here, I’m ending this piece with a sobering truth: Saving the environment takes immensely more than improving our retail behavior. Moreover there are so many forces at play when it comes to the environment, so much work to be done, that political and economic leaders and common citizens alike cannot be content with just addressing the plastic-paper-eco bag issue.

I’m just beginning to get a grasp of all these things myself, and I enjoin you to do the same. As we strive to learn more, perhaps we can do more.

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