Are your 'cloth' bags eco-friendly? They could be made of plastic, say experts

You may have gotten these bags from shops or when you get food delivered. While they look and feel like cloth, they're actually made from polypropylene.
Are your 'cloth' bags eco-friendly? They could be made of plastic, say experts
Are your 'cloth' bags eco-friendly? They could be made of plastic, say experts
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Ban on plastic bags is not a new thing. But it definitely picks up momentum now and then – state governments up the emphasis, shops and stores are inspected, and hefty fines are announced for those who are found carrying a plastic bag. Recently, Maharashtra and Karnataka’s ban on plastics (in Bengaluru, even plastic cutlery and bottled water in weddings have been disallowed) has been making the news.

Enter non-woven ‘cloth’ bags – you may have had food delivered in them when you order online, or perhaps your vegetable vendor or shopkeeper handed one to you. These bags are translucent, their texture is rough (harder than cotton, softer than jute and thinner than both) and can absorb liquids, but aren’t entirely leak proof.

Still confused? Check out these images.

Contrary to what many people think, however, these bags are not made of cloth. In fact, they are composed of polypropylene – a type of plastic. This means that these bags, despite their cloth-like texture and properties, are no better than other plastic bags, usually made of polyethylene. They take just as many years to decompose, and are just as harmful for the environment.

What are these bags?

There is plenty of information online about non-woven polypropylene bags; and it is also referred to in many places along the lines of the ‘miracle fabric’. Polypropylene is processed into a fibre form, and a web or sheet of these fibres is bonded together using heat or chemicals. Since these sheets of fibre are not knitted or spun into yarn, these bags are ‘non-woven’.

Magesh Nandagopal, a scientist with CSIR-NCL (Council of Scientific Industrial Research – National Chemical Laboratory), says that one way to differentiate these bags from cloth ones could be to see the edges. “They aren’t sewn, but stuck together,” he says. He also points out they, unlike cloth, which is spun and woven, will have a very uniform texture.

Ramakanth, co-founder of Solid Waste Management Round Table in Bengaluru, has conducted several training sessions with shopkeepers and street vendors to show them the difference between these non-woven polypropylene and cloth bags.

He, as well as Ramprasad of Friends of Lakes in Bengaluru, agree that the ultimate test is to burn the bag to see the difference. “If you burn a cloth bag, the flame will be steady and the cloth will burn completely. You will be left with proper ash. Plastic, however, will leave you with lumps after you burn it,” Ramprasad explains.  

Can these bags be reused and recycled?

Several websites vouch for the polypropylene bags as highly reusable and recyclable.

When it comes to reusability however, experts are not so sure. “Firstly, these bags are made of plastic themselves, so they aren’t a replacement for plastic bags. Secondly, when you compare it to a cloth bag, the reusability depends entirely on a case-to-case basis. How many times will you use a plastic bag, even a polypropylene one, before you throw it?” Magesh asks.

Magesh adds though that if there is an effort to arrange the collection of plastics – including the polypropylene bags in questions – as well as other plastic bags, PET bottles and so on, in decent condition, recycling is a real option. “Plastic is so successful because of how versatile it is. The push should be to recycle these, because it is possible,” he says.

However, Ramprasad and Lakshmi Menon of Hasirudala Innovations, a social enterprise company involved with waste management in Bengaluru, are not so convinced.

“These bags are made of plastic processed into fibres. It doesn’t tear so easily, but it’s not leak proof. So when dust and other contaminants get deposited in these fibres, it is not always possible to clean them out. If the cost of recycling a kilo of such bags is Rs 20-25, the quality of the recycled product is so low that they will have to be sold at the same price if not less. It’s not sustainable financially,” Ramprasad argues.

Lakshmi adds, “You can argue that you can get more use out of them. But after you have done that also, there is no end recycling option for it. If these bags are just going to get burnt and incinerated in a cement kiln, they are taking up the space of something like a shoe which has to be disposed of that way.”

Lack of awareness

Both Lakshmi and Magesh feel that there is a lack of awareness among people, which is being taken advantage of to market these bags as an eco-friendly and reusable solution to plastic ones.

“It’s about peddling on ignorance of how we define materials. Take polyester, for example. No one would disagree when you say it’s a cloth. But pure polyester is actually plastic,” Magesh says.

Lakshmi argues that while people’s mindsets are changing, and they want to be more eco-friendly, the problem is that there are not too many authorized channels which are spreading awareness. “If I am trying to do the right thing to the best of my knowledge, then I trust the government to do the rest of the job. I would expect them to come and tell me that these are polypropylene bags, not cloth bags, rather than it striking me to ask them.”

“Even the shopkeepers around my area don’t know this. After the plastic ban, they have started stocking these polypropylene bags. They are convinced these are made of cloth,” Lakshmi adds.

However Ramprasad believes that most people, especially shopkeepers do know that these non-woven ‘cloth’ bags are anything but. “But shop owners will often feign ignorance when confronted – they will say they didn’t know it wasn’t made of cloth,” he says. 

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