We are living in a time when there are so many options to choose from if you want to buy a carrier bag for your groceries, coupled by some misleading branding on these bags, the average shopper is bound to be confused.
Considering this, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) conducted a study that was funded by the Department of Science and Innovation to assess the environmental and socio-economic impacts of carrier bags that are commonly used in South Africa. They were assessed throughout their entire lifecycle to better understand the carrier bags and to empower the government, businesses and consumers to choose the ‘best bag’ in the South African context.
A total of 16 carrier bags, such as the standard 24 micron (traditional) plastic bag, reusable plastic bags and other alternatives to traditional plastics bags, were used for the study. The study used 21 indicators, that range from environmental impacts (global warming, land and water use) to socio-economic benefits (employability).
The study revealed that the best performing bag is the reusable bag from the Shoprite Group that costs R3, and incentivises the consumer with a 50c whenever the bag is reused. Other bags that performed well were the reusable plastic carrier bags.
The reusable bag from the Shoprite Group is made from High Density Polyethylene (HDPE) like the traditional carrier bag, but it is stronger and thicker, at 70 microns. The bag performs the best in having the lowest carbon emissions and water use impacts, it also accounts for the least plastic pollution after biodegradable plastic bags and paper bags, and it is the most affordable of all.
Is Biodegradable Plastic Good?
As of late, we have seen an influx of alternatives to traditional plastic bags, as seen in the uptake of biodegradable and compostable plastic carrier bags, which are also marketed as good plastics, since plastic can take around 400 years to degrade into microplastics. The study showed that biodegradable does not mean it’s better, at least not for carrier bags, because in overall, they performed poorly in the study, and the only time that they performed better than the traditional plastic bag was when the traditional one contained less than 50% of recycled material. It is to note that the biodegradable carrier bags out-performed all bags when it came to persistence (a proxy for the impacts associated with plastic pollution) as expected, but if the reusable bag are reused, and disposed of responsibly at their end of life, then less plastic pollution can still be achieved.
This study provides a turning point in brands’ decision-making when deciding which type of bags to include in their sustainability plans to phase out single-use carrier bags. As major brands have a major influence on their customers, they should rethink their branding which can be misleading or come across as dishonest work, and work together with the packaging industry to phase in sustainable packaging solutions and help consumers to achieve good environmental actions while using their products.
The verdict is as follows: ditch the traditional single-use plastic bag, use reusable plastic bags and do good to the environment.