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Paper vs. plastic bags – sustainable sourcing is key

Paper vs. plastic bags

In July 2018, supermarket giant Morrisons announced it was bringing back traditional brown paper bags for groceries, in an effort to save 150 million plastic bags every year. The decision was met with some scepticism by the Environment Agency and WRAP, who commissioned a study in 2006 (published in 2011) to assess the life cycle environmental impacts of carrier bags in the UK. The study states paper bags have a greater global warming potential. In this world of conflicting evidence, where are the genuine solutions?

Tackling Plastic Pollution Sustainably

Along with Friends of the Earth, Soil Association is broadly in support of Morrisons’ move; as long as their paper comes from FSC or PEFC certified sustainable timber sources. Firstly, we cannot overlook the fact that concerted effort globally is needed to tackle plastic pollution. Just some of the reasons: between ten and twenty million tonnes of plastic enter the oceans every year, 90% of sea birds have ingested plastic, the fish we eat contain toxic microplastics, and most ocean plastic is at plankton level - alarming given that plankton provide 50% of all the oxygen we breathe. The 2006 Environment Agency study did not account for these true costs of plastic pollution to human health and the environment, both now and in the future.

In addition, Chris Goodall’s comment to the Guardian that “Most of the plastic in the sea comes from a small number of rivers, it does not come from me buying green beans in Morrisons” contains a major oversight; in the UK, we export our plastic pollution to Asian countries. Increasingly they do not have the capacity to handle the sheer quantities we are sending - as evidenced by China’s recent ban. Hence, it ends up in their rivers, where it reaches the oceans. Ocean plastic pollution is very much our problem. And in fact, researchers at the University of Manchester also found that a British river has the highest levels of microplastic pollution recorded anywhere in the world.

Plastic is designed to last

Plastic is designed to last. And yet, 50% of all plastics are single use. Where is the logic in this? At what point did we decide to start making single use items out of something indestructible? Even so-called ‘degradable’ plastics often just fragment in to smaller pieces of micro pollution. Paper on the other hand is compostable. Our own research found a strong consumer preference for paper-based packaging which can’t be ignored.  Certified sustainable timber sources do have an important role to play in helping us tackle the persistence and toxicity of plastic pollution. And certified sustainable forests have the added bonus of providing carbon sinks, which help to mitigate climate change and safeguard biodiversity. ‘Bioplastics’ on the other hand, such as polylactic acid, usually come from crops grown using pesticide-heavy unsustainable farming practices.

Tackling plastic pollution is a complex, systemic global problem. A black and white approach isn’t necessarily helpful, and nor is a culture of blame. The best way for us all to solve the packaging problem is to stop using so much of it in the first place. But, where we do have to use it, Soil Association wants to see more plant-based, compostable packaging solutions made from non-GM crops, and FSC/PEFC paper and card. Last year we hosted a packaging forum for organic licensees with FSC in September to advance innovation in this area.

Find out more about our approach to packaging