NU.nl daily checks messages for reliability. Claim: "Paper bags are worse for the environment than plastic bags."
Verdict: not to be checked
Free plastic disposable bags have been banned in the Netherlands since 2016. Thanks to the ban, the number of plastic bags provided had fallen by 70 percent in early 2017. Yet there are still reports with some regularity stating that plastic bags are not that bad at all, and that they are more environmentally friendly than the paper bags that have replaced the plastic bag in many stores. What is this really about?
How do you determine how environmentally friendly a bag is?
Before the introduction of the ban on free plastic bags, the TNO research institute conducted research into the environmental impact. It was investigated how much effect different types of carrier bags have on 18 different environmental aspects. This included climate change, but also water use, land use and damage to the ozone layer. The study looked at the impact of the bags on the environment from the extraction of raw materials up to and including the disposal of a bag.
When a bag is only used once, the standard plastic bag does indeed outperform paper or cotton bags. When taking into account that some bags are used more often, according to TNO the paper bag is worse than cotton and plastic.
Impact plastic is difficult to measure
The researchers at TNO do, however, place an important comment on their research. The analysis does not take into account the environmental impact of litter. Researcher Stefano Cucurachi from Leiden University is currently investigating the effect of the ban on free plastic bags, taking into account plastic litter.
Official figures about which part of the plastic bags in the Netherlands ended up in nature are only missing. For this reason, Cucurachi, for example, uses data from an organization that tries to map waste on the street by letting citizens take photos of litter.
Cucurachi explains that even if we know how many plastic bags are released into the environment, it is still difficult to determine the impact of this. "For example, science does not yet know what the effect of microplastic is on health and what impact plastic has on biodiversity. The models that measure the full effect of plastic on nature are still developing."
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"Plastic is not always worse"
Cucurachi explains that if you want to know what the impact of banning plastic is, you also have to take into account what the plastic replaces. "For example, there is still a need for 'something' to transport your groceries from the store to my house. For example, since my ban more and more linen bags have been added. Cotton has to be grown and processed into a bag, this also has an impact on the environment. "
"We also see, for example, indications that by banning free plastic bags, people buy more trash bags. In the past, plastic shopping bags were often reused as waste bags. This also has an impact on the environmental impact of a plastic bag. Plastic is not per definition the worst option. It is important to look at all the advantages and disadvantages of plastic and of alternatives. "
Danish research: paper bag must be used 43 times
Cucurachi refers NU.nl to a Danish study published in February 2018. This showed that you have to reuse a paper bag some 43 times before it has just as much environmental impact as a standard plastic shopping bag. While you should use a cotton bag 7,100 times. In the case of the cotton bag, this is because in the data used the cultivation of cotton has a relatively large effect on the depletion of the ozone layer. For example, if you only look at the effect on climate change, you have to reuse a cotton bag 51 times to be just as polluting as a plastic bag.
Paper scores poorly, because large amounts of water are needed in the production of paper and the production of paper has a negative effect on biodiversity in freshwater. The Danish study also assumed that the bags do not become litter.
See also: Living a week without disposable plastic: "Bammetjes taste like beeswax"
If you ignore the possible negative effects of plastic waste in nature and the ocean, then a plastic bag is a better choice than a paper or cotton bag. But scientists are worried about plastic litter. At present, research is still being done into the environmental impact of plastic bags if litter is taken into account.
In addition, the assessment of the environmental friendliness of a bag always strongly depends on the environmental aspects that you look at and how often you use the bag. For these reasons we assess the statement "paper bags are worse for the environment than plastic bags" if not checked .