I live in a bohemian area where there are tonnes of middle-class people walking around wearing hemp trousers, dreadlocks, eating organic food and feeling smugly superior about their lifestyles. Pretty regularly, when I’m standing in the supermarket check-out lane and the attendant starts loading stuff into plastic bags, I have to endure the disapproving glares of these faux-hippies as they wield their “enviro-bags” proudly.

I’m glad that people have something to feel happy about, but it seems like this situation is a lot more complex than it first appears. Sure, the volume of waste produced by a set of 4 re-useable bags with a life of around 6 – 12 months is going to be less than that of one-shot plastic bags used over the same period. But plastic bags don’t exactly contribute a massive amount to overall waste produced by society – for example this article on the BBC website points out that in San Fransisco plastic bags only account for 0.6% of all rubbish.

Wow. As the plastic-bag crusader rides off triumphantly into the sunset, we’re still left with 99.4% of all rubbish. This is what really gets to me – plastic bags are focused on as such an important issue that people seem to think they can just act on that and the world’s environmental problems will be solved. I reckon this is, at least in part, because it’s a visible thing, it’s almost an identity or a club that people can belong to and share knowing smiles about in the check-out line. It’s like doing whatever you did to be cool in high school, only more satisfying because you can delude yourself that you’re generously saving the environment at the same time.

I’m not convinced that the production of these enviro-bags and the disposal of them once they reach the end of their useful life is any less harmful to the environment than plastic bags anyway. Especially seeing as rapid-degrading plastic bags are more readily available now than ever. These suckers break down after two or three days outside, and aren’t much more expensive to produce than regular plastic bags. Plus, plastic bags are recyclable – just drop them in the bin at your supermarket.

I tend to use plastic bags to line bins in my house, and there seems to be a balance between the number of bags I use each month and the number I need for lining bins. So if I was to start being a super-enviro-hipster, I’d have to start buying separate plastic bin-liners, on top of the reusable bags that would ultimately need to be disposed of anyway. That seems like a net gain for overall rubbish levels.

Supermarket chains have been trumpeting the availability of “green bags” and using it as some kind of branding exercise to promote their environmental awareness and fulfill any societal expectations around corporate social responsibility. This is pretty smart because it also enables them to turn on a profit on a fad. I think it completely misses the point though. We’re talking about huge, brightly-lit, temperature-controlled buildings with massive environmental footprints. That’s not even taking into consideration the impact on the environment of their distribution networks. I’d be much more convinced of a corporation’s good intentions if they conducted a public audit and made some innovative changes to the way they operate. They could also look at diverting some of the funds they use to publicly pat themselves on the back for their green-bag policies to educating customers about changing their habits to include recycling plastic bags.