Plastic bags are touted as one of the biggest causes of environmental pollution, with many nations banning the bag in an effort to solve the problem. Globally, single-use plastic bags are banned in over 32 countries, 18 of which are in Africa, with New York City in the USA becoming one of the most recent cities to do this in April 2019.  Back home, leading retailers are in the process of either phasing out the bag, banning it altogether, or looking at alternatives, such as biodegradable bags, as a direct response to rising consumer awareness of the problem.

“The effort from retailers and policymakers to address the problem of single-use plastics is admirable, as it shows the commitment from both business and government to prioritise the preservation of natural resources,” says Michelene Locke, Sales Director ITB Flexible Packing Solutions (ITB), a division of Novus Holdings, one of South Africa’s leading commercial printers and manufacturers. “However, I fear that, when looking at the alternatives on the table, as well as human behaviour, the symptom rather than the cause is being addressed.”

A new study published recently by the University of Plymouth’s International Marine Litter Research Unit and published in the journal of Environmental Science and Technology, challenges assumptions that switching to biodegradable plastics could reduce ocean-plastic pollution. It found that ‘biodegradable’ plastic bags aren’t all that biodegradable, as after three years, they are still able to act as grocery bags.

Furthermore, it found that adding these ‘biodegradable’ bags to recycling bins can destroy efforts to collect plastic bags for the remanufacture into new bags, as chemical additives in these bags can contaminate the mixture, rendering it unusable.

“The study’s findings show that we must exercise caution in thinking that biodegradable bags are a viable alternative to solving the plastic bag problem,” says Locke.

The UN, in a report published in 2016, also stated that biodegradable plastics are not the answer to marine plastic pollution. It found that biodegradable plastics rarely break down fully in marine environments, and labelling them as such could even encourage people to be more casual about littering.

“We tend to blame plastic for the problem, when it is our behaviour that needs to change. It is up to us to use plastic bags responsibly rather than discarding it where it will end up as pollution. Using a plastic bag as a bin liner is one way that will allow it to enter the waste stream, where it is easily retrieved by recyclers,” says Locke, citing research that suggests waste pickers are key to the local economy as they collect as much as 80% of post-consumer packaging, increasing the country’s recycling rate to rival that of some European countries.

She adds that savvy consumers can start making a real difference by making smarter choices when it comes to how to use plastic bags. One such choice could be to use a reusable plastic bag.

ITB has produced a 100% recyclable LLD plastic bag (made with recycled material); is thicker than an ordinary plastic grocery bag (a sturdier product with added strength – robust for carrying up to 20kg) and; it can be used up to 200 times before being handed in for responsible recycling. It can also carry frozen and wet products without disintegrating. It is also cheaper than cloth bags and can be cleaned, to ensure it remains hygienic.

“Ordinary woven bags that are sold as alternatives to plastic bags at retailers can be hazardous, as they carry a huge risk of added bacteria if food leaks, and are not easy to clean. Therefore, a healthier choice would be to consider recyclable LLD plastic bags.

“To really look after our planet, our behaviour needs to change. Making better choices through not discarding single-use plastic, choosing multiple use plastic bags, recycling and using plastic responsibly all play a part,” concludes Locke