A solution is just a new problem

Sten Gustaf Thulin was a Swedish engineer.

He worried about the massive worldwide use of paper bags, and the effect on the planet: the amount of forests that would need to be cut down.

So he invented a bag that didn’t need to cut down a single tree.

In 1959, he invented the plastic bag.

In 1962, Swedish packaging company Celloplast patented the design.

By 1979, 80% of Europe’s shopping bags were plastic.

In 1982, two US supermarkets, Safeway and Kroger, switched to plastic bags.

Now, roughly ONE TRILLION plastic bags are used every year, and less than 1% are recycled.

They take a thousand years to degrade, and kill 100,000 marine animals a year.

So, not exactly saving the planet.

Quick, there’s no time to think – just ban plastic bags and replace them with something natural: re-usable bags.

But people don’t understand the difference between pollution and global warming.

Plastic bags clog and pollute rivers, oceans, drainage systems and landfills.

But in 2018, a life-cycle assessment by the Danish Environmental Protection Agency found that re-usable cotton bags are more harmful in terms of: climate change, ozone depletion, water use, air pollution and toxicity.

And organic cotton bags are even worse: organic cotton plants have 42% less yield and use more than double the amount of water.

Previously, in 2008, the UK Environmental Protection Agency had compared bags made of paper, plastic, cotton and recycled polypropylene.

It found that, to do no more harm than a plastic bag, a paper bag would need to be re-used seven times, a recycled polypropylene bag 26 times and a cotton bag 327 times.

Senior attorney for the National Resources Defence Council, Eric Goldstein, said: "If all we do is switch from plastic to paper, we’re solving one set of environmental problems and adding others."

But marketing loves a quick fix, and it’s easy to appear "woke" by giving away well-designed cotton tote bags.

So they’re given away at galleries, bookstores, eyeglass boutiques, grocers and tattoo parlours.

Speaking of marketing, an article in the magazine Atlantic read: "People are depicted with their cotton tote bags at a sunny farmers’ market. They wear casual, modest, warm weather clothing. They take their bags to the beach, the park, art openings, concerts, through cosmopolitan urban communities and idyllic rural escapes. They are fulfilled and creative. They are middle class. They are healthy, waste-conscious, ecologically responsible, ethnically diverse, carefree but productive, affluent, connected, tolerant, optimistic, adventurous."

In fact, the world marketing lives in.

But that isn’t the world of real people, where bags are actually used for daily shopping.

In 2014, an online poll, conducted by market research company Edelman Berland, found that half of all respondents chose not to get their beautiful cotton tote bags dirty with ordinary shopping, and chose plastic bags instead.

And it’s probably even lower, with re-use rates for cotton tote bags estimated at 10%. 

Because the problem exists in the world of real people.

But marketing exists in its own world.

Where the customers are all beautiful people: attractive, well-off, polite, tidy, charming, sensitive and woke.

Real people don’t exist in the marketing world, so neither do solutions.

Dave Trott is the author of Creative Blindness and How to Cure It, Creative Mischief, Predatory Thinking and One Plus One Equals Three

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