Few would quibble over the plastic bag’s marginalization over the years. The ubiquitous carriers siphon off diminishing petroleum reserves, suffocate sea life, clog drains, and leave an unsightly blot on the landscape. Then there’s the fact they take 1,000 years to disintegrate. But is their vile reputation entirely deserved? Helen Storey and Tony Ryan, the brain trust behind the air-purifying Catalytic Clothing project, don’t think so. To rehabilitate what they consider an unfairly bad rap, the duo is collaborating with their respective universities and world-acclaimed Bill Amberg Studio to enlighten consumers about the carriers’ so-called “eco-friendlier” alternatives. The problem isn’t plastic, they argue; it’s us.

PRECIOUS PLASTIC

“In recent years society has been bombarded with negative messages surrounding the use of plastic bags,” says Ryan, pro-vice chancellor for the faculty of science at the University of Sheffield. “Not only do these plastic bags take much less energy to produce, but thanks to new technologies which promote the degradation of plastics, many of the old arguments used against the use of plastic carrier bags are now being re-examined.”

Plastic bags generate 80 percent less solid waste than paper bags and use 40 percent less energy to produce.

Plastic has been unjustly persecuted, adds Storey, who teaches fashion science at the London College of Fashion. Plastic bags generate 80 percent less solid waste than paper bags and use 40 percent less energy to produce. Likewise, a cotton-canvas bag needs to be reused 171 times to offset the higher energy and resources it takes to produce.

Scientifically speaking, Storey says, plastic bags are greener than many popular eco-bags, especially if they’re reused prior to their disposal. “It’s not the plastic bags that are environmentally unsound; it is the current attitude of using each one just once,” she adds.

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NEW “IT BAG”?

Storey and Ryan enlisted Amberg to “rebrand” the plastic carryalls, as well as encourage shoppers to “rethink and reuse.” The result? A series of hybrid leather-plastic bags that marries high brow with low.

Storey and Ryan enlisted Amberg to “rebrand” the plastic carryalls, as well as encourage shoppers to “rethink and reuse.”

“l chose to add leather handles to the bag as it has an intrinsic sensual quality that we are all familiar with,” Amberg says. “I wanted to juxtapose this luxurious material with the humble plastic carrier bag to provoke some thought about what, how and why we use our bags. Leather will provide the lasting and timeless quality we all too soon forget with a disposable bag.”

Amberg’s bags will be on display from October 13 through November 4 at Meadowhall Shopping Centre, the first U.K. shopping complex to develop a system for sorting, separating, and dispatching materials for recycling. Today, Meadowhall recycles 95 percent of its waste via its onsite facility.

Students from the University of Sheffield will also be hosting a bag amnesty to encourage shoppers to exchange their current plastic bags for ones similar to Amberg’s designs.

The Plastic is Precious: It’s Buried Sunshine exhibit is part of “Objects of Truth,” a project that seeks to challenge commonly held assumptions by sharing the science behind the everyday materials.

“There are no easy answers to living green, but by changing our behaviors in small ways we can make a big difference to our environment,” Storey says. We hope that this exhibition will provoke shoppers to think about their consumption of plastic bags today and in the future.”

+ Plastic is Precious: It’s Buried Sunshine