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Written by George Fisher

Image for article BAGS OF TROUBLE

The phone call went something like this:
Customer; “I just wanted to call to talk to you about the order I received today.”
Customer Services; “Certainly, how can we help?”
Customer; “I ordered a Patagonia product because of their ecological credentials, the product I’ve bought is made from recycled plastic.”
Customer Services; “Yes, go on.”
Customer; “Well, the recycled plastic jacket I’ve just received is wrapped in two plastic bags.”

Sometimes it takes someone from outside your business with fresh eyes to see where you’re making the mistakes.

We’ve been discussing the options around replacing plastic bags here at the company for a few months now. You would have thought, in that time, we could have made a decision and moved on with implementing a ‘greener’ approach to packaging. However, when it comes to the true ecological impact of a product it isn’t as simple as it first appears.

Of course, we started with the desire to stop using plastic bags for customers’ purchases. But is it such a crime to use plastic bags in the first place? Well, on face value, yes. On average, we use a plastic bag for 12 minutes before throwing it away. It can then take up to 500 years to fully break down, and even then normally leaves a toxic residue. It is, however, important to understand that a lot of plastic, LDPE #4 or ‘plastic bags’ in particular, is made from ethane, a by-product of natural gas production. Ethane would be typically burned off to lower the BTU value of the gas so that it doesn’t burn too hot when used as fuel in our homes and businesses. The production of plastic in this way actually ‘captures’ this ethane instead of having it burned and released into the atmosphere. Suddenly it’s not so simple.

The immediate first option for a replacement appears to be paper bags. Eco friendly, re-useable to a degree, and biodegradable. Simple. Well… not so quick. Where do we work: the Lake District. It rains a lot here. Surely customers need the protection of a plastic bag for their purchase? The environment, or customer convenience? Which would you choose?

 Assume we choose paper. Don’t judge, it’s purely for demonstration purposes. Paper only stands a chance of getting the Gold Medal if it’s from a truly sustainable source. Paper from deforestation is clearly an unsustainable solution. Even if it is sustainable, the processes for making paper from virgin wood are intensive and use a huge amount of water, generating significant waste water and pollutants. The process also uses 3.4 times the energy of a virgin plastic bag. On the upside, a good paper mill - one that gets its energy from ‘re-usables’ and has a water reclamation system - can have a net positive effect on the environment. Go Paper!

Is paper really the solution? What about biodegradable plastics?

Additives in a biodegradable plastic bag help the plastic to break down more quickly in the presence of light, heat, oxygen etc. This isn’t as simple as it appears though. Most plastics break down leaving toxic residues which are harmful. The process of making biodegradable plastic also require 2.7 times more energy than a normal plastic bag. Suddenly our clear winner in the bag race has been found doping. You’re disqualified!

Bioplastics are our next contender; a plastic made from organic materials like corn starch. It sounds like magic, right? Food to plastic. In brief: take some corn kernels (lots of them). Process and mill them to extract the dextrose (a type of sugar) from their starch. Use fermenting vats to turn the dextrose into lactic acid. In a chemical plant, convert the lactic acid into lactide. Polymerize the lactide to make long-chain molecules of polylactide acid (PLA).

On face value, it looks good. The energy saved, some 70% over traditional plastic bags, is also a huge plus. They are a neutral carbon product, as they don’t release any more carbon than the plants stored to make the corn in the first place. They also degrade into entirely natural materials, which are suitable for composting.

OK so do we have a clear winner in bioplastics? Well, there are some downsides. It is a foodstuff, and we have food shortage issues in the world as it is. It is also grown using intensive farming methods which creates another host of problems, and there’s always the ‘genetically modified’ hand grenade to consider.

The upshot of this is research is we’re not sure. We want you to have the best possible customer experience, but we don’t want to damage the environment any more than we absolutely have to. I’m certainly leaning towards a responsibly sourced and manufactured paper bag at the moment, but there are some real pluses in the bioplastic route too. We’re certainly not ordering any more plastic bags, but we do have a little bit of time to make our final decision.