Plastic bags greener than cotton bags says “suppressed” Government report

Cotton bags are no greener than plastic bags, according to new Government research published today.

Packaging industry bodies have welcomed the long-awaited report from the Environment Agency, entitled Life Assessment of Supermarket Carrier Bags. It has found that ordinary high density polythene bags used by retailers are greener than supposedly low impact choices.

The report highlighted that HDPE bags are, for each use, almost 200 times less damaging to the climate than cotton hold-alls favoured by environmentalists, and have less than one third of the C0₂ emissions than paper bags.

The findings suggest that, in order to balance out the tiny impact of each lightweight plastic bag, consumers would have to use the same cotton bag every working day for a year, or use paper bags at least three times rather than putting them in the bin or recycling.

Most paper bags are used only once and one study assumed cotton bags were used only 51 times before being discarded, making them worse than single-use plastic bags.

On 20 February, The Independent on Sunday (20 February) obtained a copy of the report that was yet to be published. It stated that the EA said it did not have a date for publication, despite being commissioned in 2005 and scheduled for publication in 2007.


The report set out to find out which of seven types of bags have the lowest environmental impact by assessing pollution caused by extraction of raw materials, production, transportation and disposal.

It found that an HDPE plastic bag would have a baseline global warming potential of 1.57kg C0₂ equivalent, falling to 1.4kg CO₂ equivalent if re-used once, the same as a paper bag used four times (1.3kg CO₂e).

A cotton bag would have to be re-used 171 times to emit a similar level, 1.57kg CO₂e.

The new EA study contradicts research that Defra published last year, which found that plastics that incorporate additives to accelerate degradation were potentially damaging to the recycling stream and should be incinerated after use – while landfill was the second-best option.

Industry reaction

Speaking to the Independent on Sunday, PAFA chief executive Barry Turner suggested that the Environment Agency had “suppressed” the report. He said: “This [report] has dragged on and on. It was a report that could have been done relatively quickly, probably within 12 months but it has gone on for years.”

He added that he would not be surprised if the report was buried because it “didn’t give the right answers” as it “doesn’t support the political thrust at the moment”.

He explained: “People at CEO level [retailers] have been consistently telling Wrap and Defra that they have been missing the point. They have had very closed ears on this and I have never been so rigid in their approach.”

Speaking to Packaging News, PAFA spokesman Peter Woodall added: “This analysis shows what we have been saying for years. Plastic bags are a more environmentally friendly option than cotton bags.

“I think this is going to be a major boost for the industry in terms of our own ability to be listened to. We have been talking about the science rather than the spin and no one has been listening. Now, this is an independent study supporting what we have been saying.”

British Plastics Federation director general Peter Davis commented: “The BPF are very pleased to see this Government research which shows that the plastic carrier bag has strong environmental credentials.

“This vindicates the hard work done by PAFA and the Carrier Bag Consortium to put over the real facts on the environmental benefits of plastic carrier bags.

“We hope this will now transform the debate to less of a knee-jerk reaction to a debate based on sound science and facts.”

An Environment Agency spokesperson said:

“A significant part of the environmental impact of these bags is associated with the resources used in their production. All multi-use bags need to be reused as much as possible to reduce their relative environmental impact and be responsibly recycled at the end of their life.

‘Plastic “bags for life” only need to be used a few times to have a lower environmental impact than single-use carrier bags.”

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  1. Finally, a report that doesn’t blame the root of all evil in the world on the lowly plastic carrier bag.

    Now lets see if the public get to hear as much about this report as they do about the reports blaming plastic carrier bags.

    It’s not a bad thing to be Green, just don’t be ‘green’ about being Green, just because it looks like it’s a better option doesn’t always mean it is, this report shows how many times a cotton bag has to be reused to get to the same CO2 footprint as a plastic bag

  2. Would have been interesting in 2007 but:

    – a paper bag is described as not reusable but all the charts presume they are used 4 time

    – a starch bag is not reusable in any sense

    – talking of starch, there’s not much starch in the new generation of biopolymer bags and they are stronger so less thickness required and prevent production of food waste liners / divert food waste as shown in Oldham

    – Oxo-degradable bags are not recyclable, interesting given what the oxodegradable association say

    – Reuse / recycling of all bags is based on a very old survey, so much has been done to promote reuse I doubt any of these figures

    – Factory recycling and additional calcium carbonate content not really considered

    – what about 100% renewable PE?

    If politics weren’t in the way and this could be redone quickly with current information – not difficult – it would hold more sway than a couple of cheap headlines

  3. The acid test of this report is, as PAFA chief executive Barry Turner says, whether is will be swept under the carpet and not publicised as it does not meet peoples green expectations.

    The whole debate seems to me to be very much in the vein of ‘the science is settled’ argument regarding global warming ie. it is not up for discussion.

    If only we were to rely on fact and common sense then maybe the majority would finally hold sway over the outspoken green brigade.

  4. I find very interesting this report, never thought that plastic bags could be more environmental friendly. The point know would be to create reusable plastic bags, I imagine if we reuse a plastic bag 20 times and uses twice as much material then the impact is reduced 10 times.
    That I think shoudl be the way forward. encourage people to resue plastic bags.

  5. Perhaps the truth of the matter is that focussing on plastic bags is attacking the problem from the wrong end. What we should be looking at is the massive overpackaging of food and other products. Often, miniscule quantities of food and other items are packaged in a greater quantity of non-biodegradable and hard-to-recycle plastic. I am sure this is not a message the packaging industry will take to but the evidence can be found in every landfill in Britain. The chances of the EU doing anything to redress the situation are virtually nil.

  6. “A cotton bag would have to be re-used 171 times to emit a similar level [as an HDPE bag]” I’ve use my cotton bags hundreds of times and they’re still going strong. Cotton bags DO have a smaller environmental footprint, if they’re used appropriately. It’s about changing people’s behaviour.

  7. This, at last, is a breath of fresh air.
    It tells you that political comment just cannot be believed nor trusted.
    That politics buries the truth.
    If it is so obvious in this instance, then where else has truth been buried?
    It also tells you the Cameron has his eye only on what he believes the public wants to hear, does not seek to portray truth backed by the best science that is available and instead of leading the public to do what is best, i.e. promote the HDPE carrier bag as being the best option for one trip bags, shows no leadership quailty at all.
    I wonder what else lies deep in the Westimster Vaults that should be publicised?