In our new blog series, Green myth busting, I’ll be doing a deep-dive into assumptions we have around certain sustainable behaviours and choices, and teasing out some of the complexities. Last time we looked into the different ways of thinking about train travel versus car travel. Next up: reusables vs single-use.
The perception: Reusable products are better for the environment than single-use.
Seems like a no-brainer, right? Single-use = bad and reusables = good. Well… it's actually a bit more complicated than that. Sensing a theme here?
While it’s absolutely true that single-use products are bad for the environment, their reusable counterparts often initially come with a higher carbon price tag.
However, every time we reuse our products, their environmental impact goes down. Therefore, our goal should be to reuse the products we’ve already got as many times as possible.
Let’s take a look at some examples, shall we?
Single-use plastic bags vs reusable bags
Single-use plastics bags have been public enemy no. 1 for a long time now, and for good reason. These lightweight plastic bags are made from high-density polyethylene (or HDPE to you and me), which is derived from fossil fuels.
Plastic bags can be recycled, but rarely are. In the UK, they currently can only be collected at supermarkets, so only 6% of flexible plastic packaging ends up being recycled (Wrap). The rest end up in landfill or as litter, where they can damage ecosystems and harm wildlife, or degrade into microplastics that pollute our air, water and soils.
However, plastic bags cost very little carbon to make. According to Mike Berners-Lee’s How Bad Are Bananas, a lightweight plastic bag costs about 3g CO2e to produce, with heavier supermarket bags clocking in at around 10g CO2e.
How do reusable options stack up? It depends on what kind of reusable bag you’re talking about, but almost all of them will have a much higher carbon footprint than plastic bags, as they use up more resources and/or more energy to manufacture.
In 2011, the UK’s environment agency determined that a paper bag had to be used three times in order for its climate impact to be below that of a single-use HDPE bag. A cotton bag? A whopping 131 times.
But the UK study was only looking at a product’s impact on the climate. A study conducted by the Danish government went even further to look at all the environmental impacts a carrier bag could have, including ozone and water depletion, ecosystem toxicity, etc.
The study then calculated how many times that bag would have to be reused in order for it to equal the environmental impact of a ‘bag for life’ that’s been reused as a bin liner:
Basically, it all boils down to: reuse what you’ve already got as many times as possible. And the next time you’re buying your mushrooms loose at the supermarket, reconsider putting them in their paper bag if you’re only going to use that bag once.