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The most important factor for cloth bags to actually be “eco-friendly”: reuse 171 times. That’s how many times one reportedly has to reuse a cloth bag to justify the extra energy consumed for its manufacture compared to a disposable plastic bag. While the exact number may vary with the thickness of the bag, at the very least, any environmental crossover for cloth versus thin plastic bag requires several things. One, we have to have the bag with us, so we use it, and don’t end up buying a new cloth bag every time we buy groceries. Two, the bag has to be in a usable condition to last that long. If we’re using a bag to carry a takeout/delivery meal, then it has a high risk of it becoming dirty. Washing a bag adds to its lifecycle impacts on energy and the environment.
If we’re serious about the 3Rs for the planet (reduce, reuse, recycle), a cloth bag helps us towards the middle point, but it often misses out on the lifecycle impacts of usage. Durable items take more material and energy. What these don’t properly help with is reducing our material impact, something that only lifecycle analyses can help us with, including “indirect costs”. These calculations are not just hard, but also assumption driven. Where do resources come from? Far away? Sadly, lifecycle thinking hasn’t worked its way into business or consumer decisions, since so many costs are hidden or covered up (e.g., waste disposal).
Today’s “cloth” bags aren’t right!
Cloth bags are attractive since they seem to be a good “environmental” solutio n. Even respected authors have commended India’s use of cloth bags. But what if India’s “solution” of cloth bags makes things worse? First, there’s the issue of re-use — the only thing worse than a disposable plastic bag is a disposable cloth bag! Visit any garbage dump and you’ll see the now ubiquitous cloth bags. Second, are these bags really even made of “cloth”?
Why did we ban plastic (‘polythene’) bags?
Plastic has helped solve many challenges in supply chain and packaging. But its use skyrocketed due to its low weight, low cost, etc. Plastic use certainly needs to be curtailed not merely for its resource- and energy-use, but also due to what happens to it after use — its improper disposal. Reasons range from health impacts and endocrine disrupters (worsened when plastic is burned, releasing toxins) to choking city drains (far worse a problem in India than other countries due to abysmal garbage collection) to the impact on marine life. For the extreme problem, search online for “great pacific garbage patch”.
Cutting down, if not eliminating, plastic bags (contraband in Rwanda, incidentally) is meant to do something positive about the environment. But what if cloth bags are only a palliative, meant to symbolize doing something and absolving us of our guilt, without actually solving the problem? This may be the end-result — a quick-fix that actually doesn’t fix anything.
The real problem is a lack of holistic analysis or lifecycle thinking when coming up with solutions, such as the odd-even rule. Yes, we need strong, bold actions to solve many societal problems — but not by rushing into solutions that don’t really solve the problem.
Are proper disposable bags possible?
Banning plastic bags was a good step if alternatives made sense. What about biodegradable “plastic bags”? First off, there are no Indian standards on these. How long do they take to degrade? Would these also choke drains? What is their raw material — petrochemical or plant based? If they are made of plant material, it may be good for domestic industry, but what are the implications for land-use and food prices?
Instead of just asking if bags are biodegradable, we should ask for compostable products (not just for bags but also disposable plates, spoons, forks, etc.). Compostable goes beyond biodegradable in not just the speed of conversion but being food-grade, i.e., something we can safely put into our soil to grow food. Silicon Valley companies now do this routinely — everything in cafeterias is either re-used (metal/ceramic/glass) or compostable (the plate/napkin/spoon/carry-out box/etc.)
In addition to setting good standards, we also have to consider how affordable solutions are. I don’t know the real cost of such solutions as they’re not widespread. My guess is any premium, if at all, would be worthwhile when considering lifecycle costs. Second, we need enforcement of standards. Just having a bag be green in colour isn’t enough — we risk lots of cheap imitations if not outright fraud.
Ultimately, we should be looking at the “disposable” vs. “reusable” bag problem as a subset of our broader waste management problem. I find it amazing that while Bengaluru has mandated waste segregation, few other cities in India have followed suit. Most household waste is food waste, so this should be segregated and composted. There is no sense in burying food waste mixed with other rubbish in a landfill. Relying on scavengers or paid workers hasn’t scaled, and may not even be correct from a societal point of view. Waste segregation should start at the source. This, of course, needs easy mechanisms to make happen, with proper collection of the respective types of wastes. A large task, but today’s solution is no less large — and far worse.
This article first appeared in Huffington Post India on 28 July 2016. Like other products of the Brookings Institution India Center, this report is intended to contribute to discussion and stimulate debate on important issues. The views are of the discussant(s), contributor(s) or author(s). Brookings India does not have any institutional views.