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Which bag is most sustainable?

Following the introduction of the new law requiring a reduction in the use of plastic bags on 1 June 2017, we have received many questions about which type of bag is most eco-friendly. In this guide, we have compiled a few advantages and disadvantages of the most common options to enable you to more easily choose between bags made from paper, plastic, cotton or polyester.

Paper bag

The paper bag may be the first thing you think of when you think of an eco-friendly bag?

Let’s take a look at whether that is the case.

Advantages:

  • Paper bags are made using renewable raw materials meaning they don’t contribute to the depletion of the earth’s resources.
  • Paper can be recycled and used in new paper products.
  • Paper is degradable and does not cause litter in the same way as plastic.
  • If you choose bags made from FSCⓇ-certified (Forest Stewardship CouncilⓇ)* paper, the raw materials are guaranteed to come from sustainable forestry.

Disadvantages:

  • A medium-sized paper back generates 430 g of carbon dioxide emissions, which is three times more than the equivalent plastic bag generates. Paper quite simply requires a relatively large amount of energy during the manufacturing process. This is largely due to the machinery used in forestry and associated transportation, which require a lot of energy. One fifth of the earth’s carbon dioxide emissions are caused by the forestry industry!
  • Since trees store carbon dioxide, the felling of forests also has a double carbon dioxide impact.

*Ask for Avisera’s FSC certified products (license number: FSC-C110916)

Plastic bag

Plastic is a material that often symbolises litter and short-term thinking. But is this really the case?

Advantages:

  • Plastic is an energy-efficient material. This is largely because plastic bags are both lightweight and thin. There is very little in the way of raw materials in each back and transportation per bag is highly efficient. This means that a plastic bag generates just 1/3 of the carbon dioxide emissions that a paper bag does.
  • We recycle a reasonable amount of plastic in Sweden, which means that the raw material is also taken care of.

Disadvantages:

  • Almost always manufactured using non-renewable raw material (oil), although there are other alternatives such as bags made using sugar cane, corn, seashells or 100% recycled plastic.
  • They also cause litter in the outdoors since even degradable plastic needs a very long time to break down.

Cotton bag

When we think about bags that can be reused, fabric bags made from cotton have long been a common choice. A bag made from a natural material is surely an environmentally friend choice – or is it?

Advantages:

  • Fabric bags made from cotton are manufactured using a renewable raw material.
  • Cotton bags are made to be reused. They can be washed and used over and over again on countless occasions until they are worn out.
  • Recycled, organic, OEKO-TEX®-certified and Fairtrade cotton are all available for those who want to choose sustainable materials

Disadvantages:

  • Large amounts of energy, and thereby carbon dioxide, are used in the manufacture of cotton. The manufacture and transportation of a cotton bag causes emissions of 4 kg (4000 g) of carbon dioxide, which 100 times more than a paper bag and 300 times more than a plastic bag! This is because an enormous volume of water is required to grow cotton. Water supplies often require transportation, which contributes to the overall carbon dioxide emissions.
  • Only a small portion of the entire cotton plant is used in the production of cotton. A cotton ball weighs around 2-6 grams.

Polyester bag

The polyester bag is gradually become more common as a shopping bag, and is available is different versions and smart, foldable models. Many are water repellent and keep their contents dry even when it is raining. (The material in umbrellas is also made from polyester).

Advantages:

  • Polyester is a very durable material which also looks good for a long time. This is why polyester bags are very well suited to reuse and they can be used hundreds of times trouble-free.
  • Of all the reusable bags, polyester bags require the least energy during manufacture, compared with non-woven, woven, jute and cotton bags. When adding transportation, a polyester bag generates 190 g of carbon dioxide emissions. This is less than one twentieth of what the equivalent cotton bag generates.

Disadvantages:

  • Polyester is an oil-based material and is therefore often manufactured using a non-renewable raw material. However, it is also possible to manufacture bags using recycled polyester.

How to choose?

As you can see, there is no perfect choice. Regardless of which material you choose, there is no bag that doesn’t have some form of impact on the environment and climate. You and your company must decide which of the various sustainability and environmental factors are most important to you and then make your choice on this basis. We can offer the following advice:

  1. Minimise emissions by choosing a product that can be reused. Think about the design by choosing a size that is the right size for as many different areas of application as possible.
  2. Compensate for the emissions caused by production and transportation. It’s easiest to choose bags labelled with ÅterBära™, which means you don’t have to make your own calculations and find your own climate compensation scheme.
  3. Guarantees the whole supply chain If you want to buy a cotton bag, opt for one made using materials such as OEKO-TEX®-certified and Fairtrade-labelled cotton. This will mean you can be sure that substances that are harmful to health and the environment have not been used in the manufacturing process, and that part of the gains made through cultivation are used to improve conditions for people in the local community.
  4. In those cases where it is not wholly clear how the bag should be recycled, write somewhere on the bag itself how to dispose of it: ‘Recycle as plastic’, ‘Recycle as paper’ or even ‘Recycle as cotton’. You can also encourage reuse in the same way: ‘Use me another 500 times!’

Advice for the consumer

Change your pattern of consumption by using your bag as many times as possible. The most sustainable bag is the one that is reused. Take a foldable polyester shopping bag with you in your jacket pocket and use plastic bag from a roll at home since they are much thinner than food bags and therefore require less energy during manufacture.

Make sure that you take your reusable bag to a second hand store for recycling or ensure it is appropriately recycled.

Cotton and textiles should not be thrown away as rubbish. In addition to using recycling centres, you can also dispose of old cotton bags, sheets and clothing through stores’ own recycling collection points.

This text contains a selection of advantages and disadvantages relating to different materials. We reserve the right to correct any errors.