At least, they are meant to be. Conditions have to be right for this to happen but it should always be possible for the bags to biodegrade completely. The bags fit five garments in and they're waterproof (turns out that's a pretty important quality as plenty of parcels get delivered in the rain and are left on soggy doorsteps).
The alternative might be to use paper bags but then something needs to happen to make the bag waterproof. Lining it with plastic seems like a pretty bad idea and would defeat the point. Bees wax or candelilia wax (making it vegan) could be used but that makes the recycling a bit more complicated. We were really keen to hear your views on this complicated matter.
What's the best option?
Turns out there are a lot of problems with the “let's get rid of all the plastic” way of thinking. Life Cycle Assessment Studies are a fantastic resource that you can find online really easily and which provide loads of information about this kind of question.
One study I was looking at was making the point that standard supermarket plastic bags are in some ways more environmentally friendly than other alternatives. The reason is that the manufacturing process is much more straight forward and has a lower environmental impact, particularly in terms of carbon footprint.
It's not straight forward though; plastic bags may have a lower carbon footprint but there's still the problem of the toxicity of production and the issues of disposal.
That's not what we're using at L&Y; our poly bags compost so that should help with the disposal problem. In fact, a really compelling answer is to “reuse, reuse, reuse”. That's a theme that came up several times in the online debate; either reusing by returning the bags to be used again that way, or having bags that can be reused in different ways by the customer.
These are both ideas we can look into further, and is one of the reasons we love the sari bags – it's so much fun seeing all the different ways they get reused!
Useful information about paper bags came out of the online debate and prompted me to go and find out more. In terms of production, paper bags consume way more water than poly (the production of plastic bags uses less than 6% of the water needed to make a paper bag), and emit huge amounts of greenhouse gases in production. To use some technical terms, the production of paper bags causes high levels of atmospheric acidification (causing acid rain) and eutrophication of water (which makes algae grow and reduces oxygen in the water so that it can't support life).
Paper bags look and feel nice and can make us feel like we're making an environmentally friendly choice, but there are big question marks over that when you start looking into it. In fact, that's been a bit of a shock to me! They are also significantly heavier (six to ten times heavier) which means more fuel is burned in transportation. This doesn't seem such a big issue when you have one parcel delivered, but looking at the bigger picture this is a big deal.
Reuse Reuse Reuse
Although paper bags are technically reusable, there's also the problem of the deterioration of the bag through use. In reality paper bags are rarely robust enough to be reused, particularly not after going through the postal system. And composted paper bags produce 68% more greenhouse gas emissions than plastic bags. Compostable poly bags just release CO2 which although not perfect, is an awful lot better than plastic or paper.
Thinking about how we could reuse the poly bags is an interesting one. If they were resealable they could be returned without having to add sellotape which would be better. I wonder if making them resealable would impact on their composting though. One of the life cycle assessment studies I was reading suggested that the best way to reuse plastic bags is to use them as bin liners. I bet if you open the bag the right way it could fit in the right kind of bin quite well so that's something I'll try. Or a bag you could put food waste in and compost that way might be a good option (L&Y bags aren't suitable for that at the moment).
Some companies, particularly food delivery companies use cardboard boxes which they reuse several times. That works really well for food items, but for clothing that would use a lot of space and be pretty inefficient. And returning them would be more complicated too.
It has been a really useful debate in clarifying where the issues are with different types of packaging. Paper bags are aesthetically pleasing, but there are more disadvantages than you might initially think and there are some big environmental questions over their use. Seems like poly bags might be the right direction to be going in. Time to be thinking more carefully about how we could be reusing them. Thank you everyone for your contributions.
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