The Danish Environment Protection Agency (part of the Ministry of Environment and Food) has recently published a life cycle analysis (LCA) study which compares the use of different types of carrier bag in Denmark in order to determine which bag has the lowest environmental footprint by default and how these bags should be used to fully achieve the lowest environmental footprint. The results may surprise many.
When it comes to environmental impact, best material uses are not as clear-cut as some would have us believe. Low-density polyethylene (LDPE), a form of plastic widely used to produce carrier bags, was found to have the best environmental footprint with regards to several environmental indicators. Unbleached paper and biopolymers had the best impact when looking at greenhouse gas emissions. The study mentions that an organic cotton bag would need be to be reused 20,000 times before having a lower environmental impact than an LDPE bag.
Are the conclusions of this study transferable to all food and beverage service packaging? No, not at all. What it demonstrates is that what we do with our packaging has a big influence on environmental impact.
We should not take simplistic approaches to complex policy challenges. It is not appropriate to treat a plastic or paper cup like a plastic carrier bag. More efforts are needed to understand the potential environmental implications of packaging use in each scenario before we make far-reaching decisions. Meanwhile, there is no excuse not to increase collection and recycling to improve our use of resources.