Supermarket switches plastic for paper in produce aisle, but will it help?

Morrisons supermarket uk photo
CC BY-SA 2.0 Henry Burrows

Plastics are choking up our oceans. But paper may have a worse climate impact.

Remember when we TreeHuggers used to get excited about the latest clean diesel models, only to discover later that we had been duped by emissions-cheating?

I was reminded of that episode when I read a report by Adam Vaughan of The Guardian on supermarket chain Morrisons eliminating plastic bags from its produce aisle. While the move is in keeping with a broad range of measures in the UK to cut back on plastic pollution which have ranged from coffee shops banning disposable cups to all-out straw wars between the UK and Europe, some campaigners are concerned that a switch from plastic to paper could increase greenhouse gas emissions.

You see the country's Environment Agency has found that paper produce bags would need to be reused four times before being disposed of if they were to offer a net climate benefit, and some experts also argue that plastic bags do a better job of keeping food fresh—meaning the move could increase food waste even as it cuts back on plastic pollution.

I'm not sure there's any easy answer here. The sheer scale of the plastics crisis means we must do what we can to eliminate any plastics from escaping into the environment, but does that mean we should ditch plastics all together—or tighten up our waste management practices to provide a closed-loop from production to disposal?

Above all, this is a reminder that the environmental crises we face are complex and multifaceted, and that solutions to one problem may come with new and unexpected challenges of their own. That's why we need joined-up thinking and system-wide approaches to tackling climate emissions, plastics pollution, resource depletion, food waste and more.

Fortunately, there's evidence to suggest that companies like Morrisons are increasingly willing to think beyond simple gestures, and to engage on a more complex level. Their broader efforts on reducing plastic waste, for example, explicitly state that they need to find ways to reduce packaging without increasing food waste.

(And as consumers, we can take the charge and say "no" to both plastic and paper by bringing reusable bags.)

May we live in interesting times.

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