What would life be like without bags? Unbearable! Bags are important to us humans: They are used for transport, storage and organisation. They often contain something that is essential to our survival, sometimes we even live out of them. They come in countless designs depending on what we use them for. Any honest member of our affluent and over-abundant society must surely admit to owning too many bags. Bearing in mind the goal of a sustainable recycling economy, it’s worth reflecting on our relationship with bags.
According to a survey, more than four-fifths of women in Germany own two or more handbags 1; the average woman in the USA owns as many as eleven 2. But it’s not just the number of bags that counts. When it comes to sustainability, the nature of the bag is also important. Products that rotate in a recycling economy must be sustainable in three ways:
These demands make it clear which bags are sustainable: All those that we can use repeatedly, repair if necessary and easily dispose of in an environmentally-friendly way.
Let's look at the bags that make up the biggest part of our bagberg: Shopping bags. Since people have had to pay for plastic bags in many countries of the EU, their number has decreased. That's a good thing. Not so good is that at the same time our consumption of thin plastic bags, commonly used in the retail trade for packaging fruit, vegetables or meat, is increasing. Consumers are therefore replacing one evil with the other. The thin bags are even more environmentally unfriendly than the thick ones as they are not made for multiple use. They tear quickly and are easily blown away by the wind. According to the German Federal Environment Agency, on every hundred metres of North Sea coast, you can find three such thin plastic bags 3.
Anyone who currently believes that the paper bag is more environmentally friendly than the plastic bag should also know that this only applies if the paper bag is used at least three times. And we would have to use a fabric bag 131 times if its use is to be less harmful to the climate than that of a disposable plastic bag. This has been established by British researchers 4.
The path to sustainability demands a lot of us: We consumers must learn to act with foresight. We should have all the bags we need in everyday life with us at all times. In this way, we can actually change the quantity of the bags we use. If at all, we should only buy and use bags that meet the above sustainability criteria. This would change the demand for bags in terms of quality. Retailers should organise their bag supply accordingly to meet sustainability criteria and only offer carrier bags for emergencies. Anyone can start the conscious changeover. Immediately
But that doesn't mean a unibag future! On the contrary: The recycling economy is a challenge to the creativity of the individual since any kind of bags can also be recycled or upcycled after their useful life. The range of re- and upcycled bags is already huge and many are unique: It includes everything from key holders to purses, pencil cases, cosmetic bags, sports bags, shopping bags and handbags; made of bicycle tyres, fire hoses, drinks cartons and much more. Entire organisations and initiatives have dedicated themselves to the topic of sustainable bags, for example the "Initiative Handarbeit" with its "Make me Take me" campaign - a joint venture with GreenBagLadies.
Retailers should see recycling and upcycling as an opportunity: They can fuel the shift to sustainable bags by offering the innovative instructions and matching materials that creative customers need for their handicrafts.
About the author
The freelance journalist on organic issues and #motherof4 Doreen Brumme blogs on doreenbrumme.de about how to enjoy a green lifestyle at work, in school and at home.