Photograph by Yadid Levy, Alamy
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Shoppers in Copenhagen and other Danish areas have a different perspective on plastic bags than many other countries.

Photograph by Yadid Levy, Alamy

Danes Use Far Fewer Plastic Bags Than Americans—Here's How

In Denmark, people use an average of four single-use plastic bags a year, compared to one a day in the U.S. But that doesn't mean Danes are satisfied.

Time and again I arrive at the supermarket and find myself unarmed with a shopping bag from home. My annoyance hits me on two levels: Wasting good money on yet another couple of plastic bags, when I already have umpteen of them stuffed into a cupboard at home. And wasting all that plastic, adding unnecessary weight to my environmental footprint on this planet, from lack of foresight, not good intentions.

In Denmark, where I live, the flimsy, single-use bags known from many countries are a rarity, only seen at the odd local greengrocer or fishmonger. There are no free carrier bags in Danish food stores. Supermarkets sell large, durable plastic carrier bags, made to last, to encourage people to use them more than once.

In 1993 Denmark was the first country to introduce a tax on plastic bags. Today, a bag costs roughly 50 cents, part of which goes in taxes, but the supermarket also makes a small profit. The higher cost of bags has cut the sale of multiple-use bags by more than 40 percent over the past 25 years. On average, a Dane now uses 70 multiple-use carrier bags and just four single-use bags a year, or less than 1.5 plastic bags a week in all. (Compared to the average American who uses nearly one single-use bag a day).

But personally, I am bumping up the Danish average.

At my home, we sort our garbage, with separate bins for paper, glass, metal, and plastic. My 10-year-old son brings our empty bottles and beverage cans to the supermarket recycling machine, where he pockets the refund. A hoard of 10 one-liter bottles and 10 half-liter bottles will give him 45 kroner—about $7—in pocket money. We reuse or recycle as much as we can. Yet somehow, I never have a shopping bag (or net) in my handbag or car when I need it, and I end up buying more carrier bags.

My 80-year-old mother, on the other hand, rarely uses a plastic bag at all. She walks up to her local shops with a tartan-patterned trolley. Admirable, but somehow I’m just not quite ready for the image shift—shopping trollies are for pensioners.

When a friend of mine turned 50, he found himself running around the house on a perpetual, often futile mission to locate his reading glasses. In the end his wife bought him ten pairs of cheap glasses from the supermarket and scattered them strategically around the house, his car, and his office. I’m thinking that I should let my bags out of the closet and adopt a similar strategy. But should I go for multiple-use plastic, or is a handful of cotton shopping nets the more eco-friendly choice? (Learn more about the plastic pollution crisis.)

What's the Best Bag to Use?

Lately, this point has been the subject of a heated debate in Denmark, ignited by a February 2018 report made by the Technical University of Denmark for the Danish Environmental Protection Agency. The report measured the lifecycle impacts of different types of bags (cotton, plastic, paper) on the environment across 15 parameters, including production, water use, ozone depletion, human toxicity, and disposal.

Plastics 101

The report concluded that LDPE plastic carrier bags—which are the bags available for purchase in Danish supermarkets—provide "the overall lowest environmental impacts for most environmental indicators.”

The Danish Society for Nature Conservation contests this conclusion, claiming that the report is scientifically faulty on many counts, among them not giving greater weight to the more serious impacts, giving "misleading" results for cotton bags, and not taking into account the pollution that plastic bags are causing in nature when they're disposed of.

While the jury is still out on this issue, all parties do agree on one thing: Whatever type of bag you use, you are doing the environment a favor by using it until it is thoroughly worn out. (See how people make only one jar of trash a year.)

Closing the Circle

But what to do with the bags once they are worn out?

In this country some bags are sorted as plastic waste and recycled. But many end their existence as garbage bags, incinerated with the rest of the waste at one of Denmark’s combined heat and power plants, which turn rubbish into new electricity and district heating. These bags avoid littering the landscape and contribute to producing new energy. Still, burning bags of quality plastic is not the best use of a valuable resource.

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Supermarket chain Netto is trying a bag-reduction program in Denmark to reduce plastic use further.

In one effort to change this, the large supermarket chain Netto has just launched a pilot project in partnership with WWF. Netto, which operates about 1,300 stores in northern Europe, is adding what amounts to 8 US cents to the price of each plastic carrier bag. For every bag that is returned, the customer will be refunded 1 Danish kroner (16 cents). For every sold bag that is not returned, Netto will donate 1 kroner to WWF to aid their efforts at removing plastic from nature and limiting plastic pollution around the world. Initially, the pilot project is limited to one Danish region, but if successful, Netto may expand the system to all its stores in several countries. Sweden is testing similar initiatives with a bag refund system.

And the Danish population seems supportive. According to a TNS Gallup poll last year, 68 percent replied that a refund system for plastic bags (with a deposit added to the current price) is a good idea. Only 13 percent were opposed. So, there might be half a solution for my future stash of plastic bags: I can dole them out to my son as extra pocket money, and he can return them when he returns our empty bottles.

But I still haven’t given up on becoming the perfect bag lady, teaching myself new habits and challenging myself on how much I can bring down my use of plastic bags. With just a little foresight, I can stop wasting money and valuable resources—quite literally. And, in a world where the production of plastic is skyrocketing, make my own small contribution to a little less plastic on our planet.

Karen Gunn is the editor of the Denmark edition of National Geographic magazine.