Dutch supermarket chain Albert Heijn (AH) has announced that they will stop giving out free plastic bags for loose vegetables and fruit. From April 19th onwards consumers can choose AH’s own new nylon bags or bring their own bag. These reusable bags will be free for two weeks and cost 30 cents per piece thereafter.
Besides the nylon bags, AH is launching a series of reuseable bags made of PET-plastic, which consumers can start purchasing this week (in the Bonus for €1,39).
At first glance this looks is a solid step forward for the supermarket lowering its environmental impact. Reusable plastic must be better, right?
Not necessarily. Research around the world about the effects of similar efforts show that there often is little environmental impact, but financially the supermarkets can certainly benefit.
In order to truly make a difference in terms of environmental footprint, these reusable bags will need to do better than single-use bags in three important aspects:
- How the bags are produced
- How often the bags are used
- How the bags are disposed of
Nylon is made from fossil fuels and a great amount of energy and water are used to produce nylon fibres. During production, nitrogen dioxide (NO2) is released into the air, as well as carbon dioxide (CO2).
Nylon bags need more fossil fuels, more energy, and more water to be produced than single-use plastic bags as the material is thicker and sturdier. Which means that nylon is only better if the bags are actually used multiple times. The exact number of times it would need to be reused depend on which exact polyamide these bags are made of (there are multiple forms of this material).
However, we do know that bags made from recycled PET must be reused at least 84 times to have the same total environmental impact as single-use plastic bags.
Replacing plastic for a non-plastic such paper or cotton bags will also not necessarily be an improvement. The total environmental footprint of paper bags is 43 times as large as that of single-use plastic, while that of cotton is 7,100 times that. The solutions is not replacing bags with other bags. Plastic tends to have lower environmental impact for most metrics with the exception of its non-degradability and marine pollution.
Whatever type of bag is used, the key to reducing its environmental impact is to reuse it as many times as possible. Will consumers actually take their AH nylon bag with them to the supermarket and reuse it multiple times? Perhaps. But there is also a chance that they do that a couple of times, then forget and buy a new nylon bag, only to forget it at home once more next time they go shopping.
A report from Greenpeace and the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) looked at the statistics of reusable plastic bag sales in the UK. They found that the top stores sold 1.5 billion plastic reusable bags in 2019, an average of 54 reusable plastic bags per household. Perhaps, people are not so good at remembering to take their plastic bags with them.
On the other hand, “single-use” plastic bags are sometimes reused at least once more.
We have asked our community of conscious consumers (166 participants) what they do when they shop at the fruit and vegetable section of a supermarket. 35% said they do not make use of the plastic bags available. Another 40% have said that when they do need to use a plastic bag to carry their produce with they always try to reuse it at least once more, either as a shopping bag or for another purpose (e.g. lining trashcans). This makes the equation even favourable for the single-use plastic bags (which are not single use after all apparently. Only 6% of the respondents throw away their plastic bag after a single use (non-recycling).
Recycling nylon is difficult and expensive. Alternatively, nylon can be incinerated, broken down in fire and form hazardous smoke. But this is quite expensive, so it is mostly disposed by being dumped in a landfill, where it can take 30 – 40 years to decompose. It ends up in plastic soups, or plastic islands, and leaves traces in the ocean (microplastics) and on land. Microplastics also end up in the water supply when nylon is washed by consumers at home.
Simply switching to cheap reusable bags will not stop consumers from throwing those bags away eventually. We can expect that people who now have adopted the habit of throwing away plastic will eventually also throw away the nylon bag which only costs 30 cents.
The development of bio-degradable plastic seems promising. But currently scientists has not been able to produce material that has a full functionality but biodegrades at its end of life. It is still to be seen whether a biodegradable material with low environmental production footprint will be developed.
What is Albert Heijn’s motivation?
Of course in the long run there are advantages in taking single-use and unnecessary plastic out of the equation. It’s a good thing that AH takes steps to reduce the amount of plastic in their shops and our homes. Replacing the plastic vegetable bags in part of a larger plan. Albert Heijn is taking a number of other steps to reduce plastic that will be effective. For example, they are improving the design of their vegetable packaging so that less and/or thinner plastic is used.
At the same time, these changes looks good in press releases. It will help AH maintain their image of a supermarket that is doing its best to be sustainable.
And there are financial consequences for AH when they stop giving away free bags, and instead charging a (small) amount for the new bags. Suppose AH will sell the nylon bags with a margin of 20% (or 6 euro cents). If we then assume that they have 3 million customers (based on their 35% market share) who each buys 3 nylon bags annually (a conservative estimation), it means we can estimate AH is making a half a million euro of pure profit on this initiative. The supermarket chain estimates that these new bags will replace 130 million single-use bags, which will also save them a substantial amount of money.
Based on previous research about similar efforts we predict that the actual environmental impact will be minimal and possibly even negative, while the financial impact for AH will be rather positive.
The real solution is changing consumer behaviour
In order to truly make a difference, there are better solutions than offering reusable bags. Most of these focus on a more drastic change in consumer’s shopping behaviour. So what can Albert Heijn do instead?
When it comes to reusing bags for produce, encourage consumers to use whatever bag they already own instead of buying a new one. Albert Heijn seems to want something similar with the “never forget your fresh bag?” message that accompanied the announcement of the nylon bags in the bonus brochure this week, but this is only a very gentle reminder. Not offering a bag for vegetables would force consumers to really think about their behaviour. Is it really necessary to put different kinds of vegetables in a separate bag? What can I do to make sure I always bring my own bag? This may not be customer friendly in the short term, but in the end this may cause the required disruption from the worn-in behaviour.
Apart from reducing the amount of packaging all supermarkets should play an active role in stimulating proper recycling of packaging materials. One way would be to offer the ability to return plastics to a container in or near every shop. At the very least supermarkets can make an effort to educate their customers by explaining how certain types of packaging can be properly recycled.
A step further would be to start selling more types of food in bulk. Nuts, cereals, rice, pastas, coffee, tea, but even soaps and detergents can be sold loose. Customers can opt to bring their own containers, or “borrow” containers from the supermarket for a refundable fee. A system like this is already being offered by Pieter Pot in Rotterdam, Delicious Food in Amsterdam, and Little Plant Pantry also in Amsterdam. Nestlé is trailing a similar system for pet care and coffee in Switzerland.
 We reached out to Albert Heijn for more information about the materials used and their environmental impact but we have not received a response to this date.