What's best: Totebags, Plastic- or Paperbags?

The good old plastic bag. The symbol of environmental pollution.
Whether in the forest, on the meadow, or on the beach, it is the epitome of the pollution of our environment. As a result, it has already received one or another shitstorm. In social media, but also in politics. Restrictions and bans are either already in place or on their way. Nevertheless, there is still room for improvement. What we can do and why our actions are so important, we want to explain in this blog post.

But first a little recap from the last blogpost:

💡 Every German produces about 457 kilograms of household waste per year.

💡 A total of 38 million tons of waste are generated in Germany every year.

💡 There are now five islands of garbage floating in our oceans

💡 There are already more than 200 million tons of plastic waste in the sea.

💡 It is estimated that 3 million tons are added every year

Plastic Bag on the beach
There are five garbage patches floating in our Oceans. Reducing plastic is s powerful solution. – UNSPLASH

But there is a plastic bag ban, right?
Plastic bags have been abolished in Germany since 2016. Unfortunately, this is not quite true, because, at some retailers, plastic bags are still handed out. According to the law, these plastic bags must be sold to customers for a fee from 2016 and may no longer be issued free of charge. As a result, the consumption of plastic bags has already decreased significantly. However, Germans still consume around 18 bags per capita each year. That's a total of around 1.49 billion bags, according to the German Federal Environment Ministry (BMU).

"Germans still consume around 18 bags per capita each year. That's a total of around 1.49 billion bags, according to the German Federal Environment Ministry (BMU)."

However, the ban does not take into account the thin plastic bags that can be obtained free of charge, for example, when buying and weighing fruits and vegetables in the supermarket. Of these, 3.749 billion are consumed in Germany alone, every single year. And each bag is used for an average of only 25 minutes. These bags are so thin that they are easily blown away by the wind and find their way much more easily into rivers, lakes, or the sea. According to the Federal Environment Agency, there are three thin plastic bags per hundred meters of coastline in the North Sea. So plastic bags are still a big problem in Germany. Yet it should be so easy to solve this problem. And also so important.

"These bags are so thin that they are easily blown away by the wind and find their way much more easily into rivers, lakes, or the sea."

Quite oily, the matter
Every plastic bag contains petroleum. Plenty of it. It takes twice the weight of petroleum to make each plastic bag. And that's not all. Most plastic bags are not recycled at all, but end up directly in the incinerator. Too bad, isn't it? Do you wonder why we don't just collect all the plastic bags together and turn them into new plastic products? Unfortunately, our infrastructure and our will to separate waste are not (yet) sufficient.

"It takes twice the weight of petroleum to make each plastic bag."

Can't it just be recycled?
Plastic types cannot be mixed together so easily. There are all kinds of different plastics and only 6 of them have their own label. All others (including bioplastics, for example) are labeled "No. 07". It is incredibly difficult for the separation systems in recycling plants to distinguish many plastics. The small shirt bags are often made of LDPE, which can only be recycled for inferior films. Ideally, they would be used to make trash bags again. But often the bags are simply incinerated. In addition, the production of bags from new crude oil is much cheaper. Since crude oil is still financially subsidized, bags made from recycled plastic are still the more expensive alternative at the moment. Well, and so plastic bags continue to be produced, most of them used once and then immediately thrown away.

"Ideally, they would be used to make trash bags again. But often the bags are simply incinerated."

Yet you could so easily use the same bag every time. When shopping, when visiting friends and when transporting whatnot. Let's be honest: Who does not know the situation: Spontaneously shopping after work and forgetting the bag at home. What now?

Are there sustainable alternatives to the plastic bag?

Paper Bags on a Bike
Paper does not consist of fossil fuels, but required a lot of energy in the production. Reuse your paper bag as often as you can. – UNSPLASH

The paper bag.
Many of you are probably thinking of the paper bag right now. This does not harm marine organisms if it gets into the environment, as it is made from natural raw materials and is easier to recycle, 35 times until it can become just an egg carton. Nevertheless, the production process is also costly and environmentally harmful. This is because chemical substances are needed to extract cellulose from the wood. Paper bags made from recycled paper have a much better balance. While approx. 60 g of CO₂ is emitted for a 54 g paper bag, only 37.8 g of CO₂ is emitted for a recycled paper bag. It is much more difficult to reuse paper bags several times because they are not as robust and waterproof as most plastic bags. Paper bags are therefore only sustainable with a blue angel seal but are still far too bad for single use. Yet you have such a good feeling when you reach for the paper bag instead of the plastic bag.

"While approx. 60 g of CO₂ are emitted for a 54 g paper bag, only 37.8 g of CO₂ are emitted for a recycled paper bag."

The tote bag.
So paper bags are not quite the solution. Even a cotton bag requires more energy than a plastic bag. Even more than the paper bag. It takes about 14 times more energy to make a cotton bag than it does to make a plastic bag. Sounds demotivating? Never! Just reuse your paper bags and your cotton bag as often as you can. And if you reuse a sustainable and fair-produced organic cotton bag several times, the balance of the bag is much better than from a paper or plastic bag. Here, the estimates of how often a jute bag should be reused vary between 50 and 150.

"Here, the estimates of how often a jute bag should be reused vary between 50 and 150."
Sustainable Cotton Bag
Cotton Bags are the most durable of all bags, but need to be reused up to 150 times to make up for the energy required in the production. – UNSPLASH

The compostable plastic bag. Wait what?
Caution is called for with "compostable" plastic bags. Many such bags are not so easily compostable. They require the right environment of temperature, air pressure, and moisture until they decompose. They can only do this in industrial facilities, of which there are hardly any. In nature, they would decompose almost as slowly as normal plastic bags. There are, however, already properly compostable bags. However, you can often recognize them by the fact that they dissolve when they come into contact with water or acids. They are often made of starch compounds or algae. The idea of a compostable bag is a good one. But as always with pioneers, it will take some time before really good solutions are found. Until then, it is better to steer clear of these materials or to throw the compostable bags into the residual waste.

What next? About bans, incentives, and behavioral change
Unfortunately, the only thing that helps against excessive bag consumption is a profound behavioral change. Just as we constantly remember to carry our keys, cell phone, to-go cup, and water bottle, we must also remember to pack a tote bag. Or even a plastic or paper bag that you still have at home and want to reuse.

Here are some tips.

1. Remind yourself with ease
Why not pack a cotton bag in each of your purses or backpacks? Access your inventory of bags and pouches to do this. They don't have to be cotton bags either. The main thing is not to buy new and reuse. Do you still like to forget your bag at home? Hang another one directly on the front door - as a little reminder. Another trick is to always keep a bag on your bike - on the rack or under the saddle. If you don't ride a bike, just put it in the trunk or passenger seat :)

2. You still have plastic bags? No Problemo ;)
The plastic bags at your home have already been produced and must be recycled at some point anyway. So why shouldn't we use them right away? Grab your entire stock of plastic bags and use them as long and as often as you can.

3. You don't have to buy a new one
The motto is: use what you have. Usually, we literally sink into bags that we got from grandma at some point or for free with an order. So a new one is rarely needed. You can also easily wash out the bags. Cotton bags can easily be washed once in a while.

4. Borrow one
You don't have a bag at hand? Surely a friend has one or two bags left for you.

5. Make the bag a habit
The more often we remember to take our bag with us, the less often we will have to resort to the horrible plastic bag. Play with small thought supports in everyday life until the bag has become part of your everyday habit.

6. Reduce, reuse, recycle
We can't say it enough: no matter what kind of bag you have, reuse it. Not only plastic but paper and cotton bags, in particular, want to be reused as often as possible.

7. If you buy a new one...
If you don't have a bag, then you can still do something important: Pay attention to the robustness of the cotton bag you buy, so that it can accompany you as long as possible and is durable. Also, pay attention to the material: organic cotton, organic linen, or organic hemp are great. And it's even better if the bag carries the Fairtrade seal.

If we manage to follow these seven tips and tricks and to reduce the use of plastic bags collectively and globally, we have a savings potential of around 3 kg of CO₂ per person per year.

You can find new challenges in the PLAN3T app about Zero-Waste, for which you can get double Planet Coins for one month. Try your hand at 'Reduce plastic- and paper bags' and track your success every Sunday. Over the coming weeks, new challenges will be added, which we will take a closer look at in the next blog posts. We hope you have fun trying out the challenges. If you have ideas for future blog posts or further questions, feel free to write to us at hello@plan3t.one or contact us via Instagram, Facebook or LinkedIn.

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