Reusable bags are not the durable solution you might think they are

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In the fight against climate change, we all hope that the small, thoughtful actions we take to be more sustainable will eventually pay off. We are buying less plastic, changing our travel plans to reduce emissions, and bringing reusable bags everywhere.

But what happens when, despite our best intentions, our efforts to reduce plastic waste do not bear fruit?

Unfortunately, this appears to be a growing problem, as new research suggests that reusable bags once touted as key sustainable resources are actually doing more harm than good.

Shelie Miller, professor of sustainable systems at the University of Michigan, recently underlined the moral duality of sustainability in so-called “sustainable products” such as tote bags and plastic “bags for life”.

“We know consumers love them,” says Miller, “we know they want to reuse them.” However, it is important to consider that these products are used enough times to justify their creation.

In fact, other research by Miller points out that the most unbearable element is not the packaging, but the actual items being carried.

What are retailers doing to stop the use of non-durable bags for life?

With such research in mind, forward-thinking supermarkets and outlets are starting to change the game on reusable plastic bags.

British supermarket chain the cooperative recently chose to withdraw the lifetime bags from the sale in the 2,600 stores. Instead, stores will offer compostable bags, with an additional charge of € 0.15.

However, with many mass-produced reusable bags for life still in circulation elsewhere, questions remain as to how these bags will recover any durable items, and whether they will be continually reused and therefore justify their production.

Where should we be focusing to become a sustainable society?

It seems that in order to truly recoup the environmental cost of reusable bags, we need to target all plastics, including those related to consumption and food waste.

But understanding which food consumption systems are the most and least wasteful can be a slippery slope.

In 2019, Miller and his colleagues find that meal kits, even with all of their packaging, produced less waste because users were throwing away less food than when they made food from their own grocery store.

Green chef, for example, is an example of a meal kit brand specializing in sustainable menus, with the aim of reducing food waste. The company goes even further by offsetting 100% of its operational carbon emissions and any plastic used in the boxes.

Overall, plastic waste remains a complex issue, with individuals struggling to control what is beyond their control in their attempts to contribute to sustainable practices.

Miller and his team are aware, however, that this goes beyond the individual.

“The solid waste that we produce in our households is really just the tip of the iceberg,” she explains.

“Continuing to push for change at the societal level to ensure that everyone has access to food and that big polluting companies are held to account is also an important part of becoming a sustainable society.”


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