Plastic waste is one of the great environmental concerns in a global perspective. In Sweden, plastic carrier bags are thin and strong, and often find reuse before being recycled. More and more products are made from recycled material and bioplastics.

In Sweden, more than 9 out of 10 plastic carrier bags are used more than once, for shopping or garbage disposal. Photo: Trioplast.

”Like most people, the reports of damaged ecosystems and plastic waste in the oceans affect me emotionally. The dramatic imagery provokes a call for quick solutions, and banning the use of plastic carrier bags may seem reasonable. But as often is the case, the reality behind the imagery is more complex; a lot of important information about plastics has not been taken into account in the debate”, says Andreas Malmberg, CEO of the Trioplast Group.

”At Trioplast, we always work actively to reduce our impact on the environment. Close to 30 percent of our products are made of recycled material, and we continuously incorporate more and more recycled material into the product range. We are also working with bioplastics”.

How carrier bags are used

”Trioplast may not be a well-known brand among consumers, but the products we make affect the daily life of most people: plastic carrier bags, protective packaging films, barrier layers in baby diapers, incontinence shields and operating surfaces, to name a few. With a volume of sales of about 4 billion SEK, and ten production facilities around Europe, we are one of the leading manufacturers of high performance polyethylene film”, Andreas Malmberg says.

”Carrier bags have become a symbol for the role of plastics in society. They are an ever-present waste, they are used in large numbers and are often sold cheaply or given away for free. Many of them are discarded after being used once. They can be carried away by the wind and get stuck in trees or end up in watercourses, becoming a highly visible kind of litter”.

”It is a common misconception that carrier bags are essentially the same in different parts of the world. They are not. Unlike Sweden and certain other countries, many parts of Europe use thin, poor-quality plastic bags which break too easily to be reused. This results in a higher consumption. Countries like Sweden, Denmark and Germany use fewer carrier bags per person and year than the rest of Europe. Countries with poor-quality bags use five times as many; in combination with their less developed waste management and recycling systems, littering becomes a serious problem”, Andreas says.

”Carrier bags have evolved in the last three decades; they have become thinner and stronger, with more and more recycled plastics as raw material. In Sweden, grocery stores and specialized stores use about the same amount of bags – something like 1.3 billion. According to a 2016 study performed by the trade association IKEM, the majority of Swedes (76 percent) use their bags as garbage bags after using them for purchases. 16 percent reuse their bags for other purchases, 3 percent put them in the recycling bin, and 2 percent of the bags end up in the domestic waste. Most of the carrier bags are reused at least once, and that is a good thing. The fact that more people recycle their bags than throw them away is also to be welcomed. Consumers acknowledge that carrier bags are plastic packaging, and separate them accordingly”.

A political crackdown on carrier bags

”Some of the EU member countries are attempting to curb the extensive use of carrier bags. In 2011, member countries turned to the European Commission, calling for an EU-wide proposal to reduce consumption. According to the Commission, the production and use of plastic bags contributes to depletion of natural resources and accumulation of litter. Only a small proportion of plastic bags are actually recycled (6.6 percent) in the EU. The bulk of plastic bags collected through municipal or private waste collection systems (1.5 million tonnes a year) is instead either used for energy recovery (39 percent) or landfilled (49.7 percent). Estimates suggest that over 8 billion plastic carrier bags were littered in the EU in 2010, representing over 8 percent of the plastic bags consumed in the EU”, Andreas Malmberg says.

”Plastic littering is not only a challenge to the EU, but a major global one. Countries such as China, Brazil and the US are responsible for the largest amounts of accumulated waste. Political action is growing, and carrier bags are becoming the primary target”.

Recycled raw materials reduce environmental impact

”Our plastic carrier bags have become thinner, with a higher proportion of recycled polyethylene”, says Andreas Malmgren, Trioplast. Photo: Trioplast.

”At Trioplast, we understand the pros and cons of plastic carrier bags. We want to both contribute to reduced environmental impact and create business opportunities. These goals are not mutually excluding. We are taking action both as a company and as a member of IKEM. Sweden is at the forefront of environmental measures and carrier bag recycling, with a unique level of collaboration between producers and businesses. The result is that our bags are more resource-efficient – both lighter and more durable – and contain a larger proportion of recycled plastics. Carrier bags are handled by the collection and recycling systems for plastic packaging”, Andreas Malmberg says.

”Over the last few years, Trioplast has continued to develop thinner products in order to reduce the use of raw materials. We have developed products with higher content of recycled polyethylene, going from 5 – 10 percent in carrier bags to 50 percent in our total production volume. We purchase thousands of tonnes of plastic waste every year and convert it to raw material for new products. The waste sorting process has been optimized to improve recycling”.

”The Landskrona facility uses several hundred tonnes of bio-based plastics from sugarcane. Triogreen is our brand for the products that are made from green polyethylene with less CO2 footprint. Because green polyethylene and fossil polyethylene have the same properties, we can produce all kinds of films and products under the name Triogreen”.

”Looking ahead, we are going to continue our efforts to use more bioplastics and recycled material. In a larger perspective, Sweden should pursue the development of materials from forest and agriculture biomass. We in the industry can contribute with product development and collaboration across the value chain. Carrier bags can be made from other materials as well, but plastics still have a role to play. The material is under scrutiny, but it has a number of advantages that should be weighed in. Objective and factual information is important”, Andreas Malmberg says.

The article was published in September 2017.