Monday, March 24, 2008

Plastic fantastic?

Just when we think we're getting to grips with this bookselling business, along comes something to trip us up, deliver some humility and remind us that there is still a lot to learn. So, to correct any misconceptions about the slick operation we run here at Mostly Books, a few weeks ago we discovered we were about to run out of plastic bags. More accurately, Nicki had been asking me repeatedly for some weeks to bring in more plastic bags from our garage (the unofficial 'mostly books' stock room extension) to which I'd been saying "I'm sure we must have at least another box down at the shop". You see, when we did our original bag order back before we opened, we had to order tens of thousands at the same time. Having loaded that little lot (paper and plastic) into storage, I couldn't believe that we'd managed to burn through so many since we'd opened. So, when eventually I'd hunted high and low at the shop, and reluctantly agreed that, yes, we did need some more, we were down to about 20 - and lo and behold, we'd only got paper bags left in the garage. Yoinks. However, this did provide us with a bit of an opportunity, as the thorny issue of plastic bags is a very hot political topic at the moment. Some towns have got rid of them completely, most retailers are looking at ways to reduce the number of bags they give out (spurred on by hints in the last budget of legislation in 2009) and even Gordon Brown has found himself allying with the Daily Mail to wage a war on plastic. Yep, plastic's hot at the moment. In Abingdon, there are a number of groups working on ways to eliminate plastic from shops - and having done quite a bit of research on this over the last few months, we've been submitting what we've found to various groups to work towards a solution. Here's some of the things we've found out, and what we're doing about it. Firstly, it's worth pointing out that not all plastic bags are equally bad. It depends on what they're made of, and how you use them. The worst offenders are the very cheap, flimsy plastic bags typically distributed by the major supermarkets. That weekly shop at Tesco can result in a whole load of these cheap carriers, which are difficult to re-use (they tear easily) and tend to get ditched straightaway. These bags are the ones that cause the most damage in the environment - wrapping around trees (creating "plastic forests" downwind of landfill sites) and choking wildlife in the marine environment. Any legislation aimed at reducing or eliminating plastic should probably target these types of bags first. Mind you, this would probably have a disproportionate financial impact on the big supermarkets. I wonder whether the government will do this first, mmm? The fact that these plastic bags are difficult to reuse is an important one. Re-using a good-quality plastic bag many times over is much better than binning it (it doesn't end up in the environment, and saves a goodly amount of energy) - and of course plastic can fold up pretty small for carrying around. Our view is - providing its used with responsibility, and the overall trend is for more alternatives to plastic, and people are educated to carry their own bags - then there is still a place for plastic. Many of our customers now bring their own cotton or calico bags (again, people that support local shops tend to be a bit more clued up about this, and go to greater lengths to bring their own bags. Another reason to go after the big out-of-town boys, eh?). We've noticed - even in the last few months - that increasing numbers of people are re-using plastic bags, and we have been giving give out less and less of them. Apart from when it rains. When it rains, everyone wants a plastic bag. I think this is something particular to bookselling: you might tolerate a few drops on your weekly shop, but books and rainwater don't go well together. When we did the booksigning at the Roger McGough event the other night, it tipped it down, and hardly anyone had come out to the theatre with a plastic bag tucked into their evening bag or pocket. People were buying books for gifts - they didn't want a paper bag. Also, book purchases tend to be heavy - and you need bags that won't break. We talked to our bag supplier (Selway Packaging in Reading) who were extremely helpful in working with us to find some solutions. When we asked if a strong paper bag might be a solution, we discovered that the ones available in the marketplace tend to be a) energy-intensive to produce, b) made in China and c) have card-reinforced bottoms which make them difficult to fold up. Hence they have a higher carbon footprint and tend to get chucked after a single use. So - taking all of these complicated factors into consideration (and probably rationalising our own position a bit given we had to make a final decision quickly!) here's our Mostly Books Bag Policy going forward: 1. We are committed to reducing plastic bags in the retail environment. To that end, we will continue to offer paper bags, ask if the customer needs a bag, and encourage the re-use of plastic bags as a first option. 2. If customers want a plastic bag, we now have 70% recycled biodegradable bags which are made in the UK. They are strong and emminently reusable, which we mention and encourage to all customers at the point of sale. 3. We are working with Selway to source and produce some organic, fairtrade cotton bags (printed up with our logo). We feel using existing bleached cotton has significant environmental impacts that make them unsuitable. So what do you think? Smug greenwash, or a genuine attempt to square the needs of the environment with the kinds of products we sell? We think plastic made of 70% recycled, biodegradable material is a good first step (taken with all our other measures - we did try to get 100% biodegradable but these, currently, are made of cornstarch and wouldn't be strong enough for heavy books). We'd certainly appreciate your feedback (although of course because we now have 9,500 '70% biodegradable recycled bags' sitting in our garage, if we have made a hideous mistake they'll be a certain amount of plastic egg on our faces...).

10 comments:

  1. You have made the right choice.

    Recycled bags are OK, but they are not degradable and will still lie around in the environment for decades. However, ordinary plastic and recycled plastic can be made oxo-biodegradable, and this is what you appear to have chosen.

    This is done by including d2w additive (see www.degradable.net) which makes it degrade, then biodegrade, on land or at sea, in the light or the dark, in heat or cold, in whatever timescale is required, leaving NO fragments NO methane and NO harmful residues. Oxo-bio passes the tests in American Standard 6954, and is made from a by-product of oil refining which used to be wasted, so nobody is importing extra oil to make it.

    There is little or no additional cost.

    Plastics made from crops, are at least 400% more expensive. They are not strong enough, and they also emit methane (a powerful greenhouse gas) in landfill. Also, it is wrong to use land, water and fertilisers to grow crops for bioplastics and biofuels, which drives up the cost of food for the poorest people.

    The same applies to growing cotton or jute to make durable bags. These rapidly become unhygienic and become a durable form of litter, but they can be made from oxo-bio plastic to last up to 5 years.

    Paper bags use 300% more energy to produce, they are bulky and heavy and are not strong enough. They will also emit methane in landfill

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  2. Michael, you've made my morning. Thanks. Someone who knows far more about this than me.

    With the dramatic rise in staple crop prices in recent months (caused in part by a dash to use agricultural land for biofuel in the US, as far as I understand) the ethics and environmental impact of using crops for plastic is also one that needs to be factored into the equation.

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  3. Paper bags also take up a lot more room than plastic in transit so it costs more for them to travel - especially from China. We've gone for the bio-degradable option too for our next batch of bags. It takes 5 years or so for them to disappear but does seem to be the best and most efficient compromise.

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  4. Thought this story was also relevant.

    Seems plenty of different plastics wreak havoc in the ecosystem...

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  5. That's a very thought-provoking post, and some very interesting comments, especially the impact of the "dash for biofuels" on plastic bag economics.

    The Foulsham family have attempted to switch away from plastic bags as far as possible (though I must say that the Mostly Books carriers have a very high re-use rate at home - possibly up to 10 outings!). We have found that the supermarkets' first attempt, the 5p "bag for life" was little better than the basic thin bag - they tore too easily and ended up being binned. Their newer "foldaway" 50p ones are doing very well - we have three, the oldest of which is probably 2 years old and still going strong (it's a Sainsbury "orange" model). For a go-anywhere with you bag for those occasional impulse book purchases, Sally carries an "Onya" bag - http://www.onyabags.co.uk/ and I have 2 bags which came free from our IT suppliers - one is calico / cotton and the other is parachute silk which folds up into a small bundle. All are really sturdy, and the onya bag and the parachute bag (in fetching red) are both fairly waterproof.

    I'm looking forward to seeing the new more environmentally-friendly Mostly Books bags - or how about a Mostly Books branded reusable book bag for sale at the till?

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  6. Coming soon Andy - just as soon as our bag supplier can source sustainable cotton (organic, fairtrade - apparently quite difficult to do...)

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  7. Rachel1:52 AM

    I keep telling the till people in Waitrose to stop saying 'Do you need a bag? and change that for 'You don't need a bag for that do you?' Our brains tell us to say yes to the first question just out of politeness!

    A pint of milk or a loaf of bread doesn't need to be in a bag and I am willing to bet that many books would fit in a handbag or coat pocket or just be carried in dry weather. As a society we are bag fixated and it is madness really.

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  8. It's a good point Rachel - and of course, if everyone stopped taking a bag in the first place, we wouldn't be having this discussion.

    People are conditioned to think in certain ways (often by technology), and it can take a bit of effort to 'unthink' habitual behaviour.

    Lots of people now refuse a bag because they are much more aware of the issues - but as retailers it would still be difficult to unilaterally say to a customer (who maybe has children in tow, when it's raining, when they've bought a book as a present, when they had to rush out of the house and forgot to bring a bag, etc) "no, you can't have a plastic bag" - we probably wouldn't see that customer again!

    A combination of individual responsibility, social pressure, financial incentives (i.e. charging for a bag), reward schemes for re-using bags - these are the way forward.

    And I maintain my point that the place to start is with the big supermarkets and retailers!

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  9. Blimey, it's not easy being green is it?
    We don't have plastic bags at all, and we haven't had one complaint yet.
    We use recyled and reusable paper bags 'which are partly made by hand' and are quite the new fashion accessory in Wood Green. We're looking to source some of the linen bags with our logo on next, but we only found a supplier for these after we'd ordered the paper ones.
    I agree with the comments that the paper bags are more bulky and are more expensive (for the environment) to post , but we ordered in bulk to avoid excessive carbon footprint action. Your post has made me look closer at the other options though. Thanks.

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  10. Fantastic post and comments! I'm getting ready to open my little shop at the moment, and for weeks now I've been dithering between having only paper bags or getting a supply of plastic too as a fall back option (as the sunshine up here in Scotland mostly comes in the rather wet, liquid form which, as you mention isn't really what you want with a paper bag full of books). Your post and all these comments have certainly helped me on my way to figuring out my next step. Thanks!

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