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19 Oct 2017, 10:41 CET

Which type of carrier bag is actually most eco-friendly?

Recently, a debate has flared up in Sweden about which type of carrier bag is actually kindest on the environment. Here we give BillerudKorsnäs our view on the matter.

A number studies have been carried out comparing the environmental impact from various types of production, and they present widely differing results. The reason for this is that the issue is not quite as clear cut as you might think. The impact from both paper and plastic production is affected by multiple factors, of which the most significant include:

  • How much fossil fuels are used in the production of the material?
  • Where does the production take place? The country of production can affect emission levels, given that different countries purchase electricity from different mixes of sources.
  • Is the paper production integrated (the production of pulp and paper takes place in the same place) or not?
  • In which country is the product used? This is significant with regard to what happens to the product once it has been used. recycled, incinerated or landfill? Sweden achieves a high level of recycling for both paper (and plastic), and no paper products are used as landfill (ends up in a dump). In other countries, however, a large proportion of paper products (and plastics) finds its way to landfill sites, which in the case of the paper can cause emissions of the greenhouse gas methane.

Paper made from BillerudKorsnäs material is better for the environment

BillerudKorsnäs has commissioned IVL Swedish Environmental Research Institute to conduct several life cycle analyses, and the results reach an unambiguous conclusion: paper made of BillerudKorsnäs material is more climate-friendly than conventional PE-plastic, bioplastic, recycled plastic and recycled paper. The reasons are:

  • Energy-efficient, integrated production of paper
  • High proportion of biofuels
  • Low impact from purchased electricity in Sweden.

The best approach of all is to reuse your carrier bags – no matter what material they are made of. Fabric bags are only a good alternative to other materials if they are used at least 130 times because the process for manufacturing cotton has such a high impact on the environment.

  • BillerudKorsnäs paper carrier bag: A brown paper bag, made of paper (in this survey from our production facility in Skärblacka). Degrades in 1–2 months if it is disposed of in nature.
  • Recycled paper bag: Paper made of 85% recycled material and 15% new fibre. Degrades in 1–2 months if it is disposed of in nature.
  • Bio-based plastic bag: Bag made of plastic from sugar cane. Even though the origin is bio-based, it still takes just as long to degrade as a “normal” plastic bag – i.e. 50–450 years.
  • Recycled plastic bag: Bag made of 50% fossil plastic and 50% recycled plastic. Takes 50–450 years to degrade if it is disposed of in nature.

Using plastic bags can result in fines of up to EUR 30,000

The use of plastic bags is a contentious issue. More and more regulations and statutory orders are being introduced to reduce the use of plastic bags and the like. The main reason for this is the major problems associated with dumping plastic. In 2015, the EU introduced a directive to limit the use of plastic bags to 90 per person per year in the period to 2019, and to 40 per person by year by 2025. As from 2017, Sweden has required everyone who uses and stocks plastic bags to provide information about their negative environmental impact, and other countries have introduced even stricter measures designed to limit the use of these bags.

For example, the United Kingdom has introduced a duty on all plastic bags, while France has quite simply banned the use of ordinary plastic bags. Examples outside Europe include Kenya, where a ban on carrier bags made of polythene (PE) was introduced in August this year. Using carrier bags made of PE is now subject to fines of up to EUR 30,000, a prison sentence, or a combination of the two.