Ban plastic bags? No thanks.

Political initiatives are under way at federal level and in several cantons to ban plastic shopping bags. Migros Cooperative Geneva is setting an excellent example: it stopped handing out plastic bags at the checkout at the start of 2009. Migros takes the view, however, that there is no ecological justification for actually banning plastic bags.

Should plastic bags be banned in future? Dominique de Buman, National Councillor for the Christian Democrats, thinks so and tabled a motion in 2008 calling for «a ban on the use of non-reusable and non-recyclable plastic bags in shops». Migros uses two different types: thick ones for carrying textiles, and thin tie-handle ones of the type used for bagging up fruit and vegetables. The second sort makes it possible to sell goods on open display in a hygienic manner and significantly reduces packaging waste, because material-intensive outside packaging becomes largely redundant.

Environmental audits have shown that even when only used once, thin plastic bags are up to four times better than paper ones. More material is used for paper bags with the same load capacity as plastic bags. Also, a great deal of water is used in manufacturing the pulp to make the paper.
One could argue that the thin tie-handle bags should be re-used, even though they already score highly in the environmental audit. Yet this is unrealistic, since they are often dirty or damp after being used once. So even paper bags can only be used once.

This is why Migros does not feel that a ban on plastic bags can be justified on ecological grounds, preferring to encourage customers to act in a more environmentally-conscious manner with incentives rather than bans. The aim is to reduce the number of plastic bags where there are sensible alternatives. Migros Cooperative Geneva has been breaking new ground: it stopped handing out free white plastic bags at the checkout at the start of 2009. Initial findings show that the move has gone down well with customers, not least thanks to keeping them informed and running a campaign before the changeover offering discounts on the range of reusable bags.

The reusable plastic bag introduced into the range in 2008 has been a hit across the country. By the end of 2009 a total of 5.84 million had been sold. A detailed evaluation of ending free bags at the checkout is currently under way. If, as expected, the conclusion is positive, other Cooperatives may follow Geneva’s lead.