As it turns out, being green isn’t easy. Yesterday, TodayOnline published an article which stated that in Singapore, it is more eco-friendly to use plastic bags than you think. The unlikely conclusion was drawn by scientists at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU).
Because waste is incinerated in Singapore, the time needed for waste to biodegrade is irrelevant. Sure, paper breaks down a lot quicker than plastic but if they’re both headed to the incineration plant, it’s better to focus on other metrics. Such as the process of making, distributing and transporting the bags we use every day. Where do the bags we use when we buy from supermarkets, pharmacies and eateries come from?
Plastic bags are a by product of making petroleum. The crude oil that is processed and keeps cars running is the same crude oil used to make plastic. Because no oil reserve will last forever, we can’t keep making plastic bags.
Paper bags are produced by chopping wood, which comes from trees. But the process of making a paper bag actually uses three times more water compared to making a plastic bag. Paper production also causes major air pollution, so major it produces up to 70% more pollution than making plastic.
The study published by NTU also emphasized something that is echoed by many environmentalists. Being green in a city all comes down to how much you re-use that bag.
In 2019, the BBC published an article on the environmental impacts of paper and plastic bags. This graphic was included to illustrate how many times we have to re-use a bag, to offset the environmental impact making it caused.
For clarity, a “bag for life” is a typical re-usable bag you can find at Cold Storage, or NTUC.
A non-woven PP bag refers to a non-woven polypropylene (plastic) bag. Fun fact, the iconic IKEA blue FRAKTA bag is made from 100% polypropylene, with a minimum of 60% being from recycled materials.
Such bags can be made from recycled plastic as well as melted down for recycling.
Lastly, a cotton bag is most commonly seen as a promotional tote bag.
Cotton bags have an atrocious score because they are the most carbon intensive to make. At least they are durable, which means we can keep using them.
What’s not included in the chart is how many times you will need to repurpose that plastic bag to offset the environmental impact making one bag creates. According to the NTU study, the answer is four times.
Four times is a lot.
I’m honestly not sure if anybody reuses their plastic bags twice, let alone four times. Apart from using the bag as a bin liner and bagging your pet’s poo, there isn’t really repurposing you can do with a plastic bag.
My view is that we should all learn our usage preferences and adapt them to be as green as possible. For example, maybe you’re the kind of person who prefers to wipe down their bags when they get dirty. Then you should get a non-woven PP bag, to bag your items when you go shopping for your necessities. Or maybe, like me, you prefer to throw things into the washing machine and let it do the work. In that case, you should get a cotton bag but use it forever.
Until the big corporations that use plastic say no, we as individual consumers, can do our part by carrying our stuff in something that’s not plastic, whenever possible.