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Will paying for plastic bags make us greener?

Plastic bags and green bag for life

If you live in Wales you’ll have to pay 5p for every new plastic carrier bag from next year. Is this an eco-friendly scheme that should be rolled out across the UK or just another way to squeeze money out of shoppers?

I’ve got a confession to make. Last night, having rushed to the supermarket straight from work, I packed my shopping into fresh plastic carrier bags.

There, I’ve said it. It’s not an easy thing for me to admit – I like to think I’m as green as I can be, especially when it comes to easy things like reusing bags.

And, while I’ve got piles of strong ‘bags for life’ at home, I still keep kicking myself mid-shop when I realise that I’ve left them at home – again.

Wales is leading the way

I know I’m not alone. In September YouGov polled consumers on this subject and found that 43% often use a ‘bag for life’, yet just over a third still use free plastic bags provided by the retailer.

But would charging us for every bag we use change these figures? Welsh politicians seem to think so. Last week the Welsh Assembly announced that, from 1 October 2011, shoppers will have to pay 5p for each plastic carrier bag they want when they’re out shopping.

That would have set me back around 50p last night. It’s not going to break the bank, but it might well nudge me into leaving a few strong bags in the car at all times (something I regularly tell myself to do, but never have to date).

Scheme should be countrywide

There are a few shops that have introduced this scheme nationally – Marks & Spencer and Holland & Barrett spring to mind. Last year, M&S told us that since charging shoppers 5p for plastic bags it’s cut the number handed out from 464 million to 77 million. Impressive stuff – just think how many more could be cut with a proper roll out.

And that’s the crux of the issue for me. While some shops obviously need to lead the way, I can’t help but think that Wales has the right idea. Surely the scheme needs all retailers on board to really get into people’s mindsets and work properly?

YouGov’s survey revealed that public opinion is mixed on whether this would be successful. Nearly a third agrees that charging for carriers will reduce the overall number being used, while 24% think these schemes are a ploy by supermarkets to make more money.

Where do you stand on this? Would paying for plastic bags force you to bring your own, or would it just mean you’re paying a higher price to pack your shopping?

What do you think about paying for plastic bags?

They should be free (81%, 2,841 Votes)

5p per bag is about right (12%, 418 Votes)

We should pay more than 5p (7%, 238 Votes)

Total Voters: 3,497

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It definitely changed things in Ireland when they introduced it in 2002. Here is an article from the BBC at that time saying that it had created a 90% drop in plastic bag usage. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/2205419.stm Mind you, they were then charging 15c per bag, a lot more than the proposed cost in Wales now. It’s gone up to 22c per bag now, which is a major deterrent to using them and I have noticed that the bags you do end up buying sometimes (I, for one, often walk out of the house without my shopping bags), are flimsy and break easily. It has raised millions of Euros in Ireland and cut down on the number of plastic bags that were often seen flying about as litter. All in all, I think it’s a great thing to have introduced this. I don’t know why the UK has taken so long to get there. Think of the revenue and the help to the environment.

Sophie Gilbert says:
9 November 2010

Like mhanley I wonder if just 5p is going to be that big a deterrent. Maybe 20p would be better. It would have set you back £2, Hannah! I also sometimes forget to take my shopping bags with me and end up using new bags and I feel guilty about it too. If I were charged 20p a pop I’d be surer to remember to take my shopping bags with me wherever I went!

I totally agree that Wales has the right idea. The scheme does need all retailers on board to really get into people’s mindsets and work properly and it should be really rolled out throughout the UK.

Re Marks and Spencer charging for bags; if you food shop, they charge 5p per bag to carry home products which themselves are packaged in oversized, non recyclable containers, yet buy something in any other department and a bag is given automatically.

I am in favour of all taxation that is avoidable [like betting, smoking and other pleasures] so I have no problem with a tax on plastic bags but it must apply to all purchases, not just essential food shopping which would bear more heavily on those on lower incomes. Everyone forgets to take their reusable bags out from time to time and we have a cupboard full of bags for life bought on such occasions, so the imposition of a penalty for taking plastic bags might discipline us into compliance. But while I agree with a previous comment about excess packaging in M&S, unfortunately some shops are so cheese-paring with their packaging that bags are essential for product protection and separation. [Why is the best butter wrapped in a piece of greaseproof paper that gets torn while the “not-really-quite-as-nice-as-butter” spreads all come in sharp-edged plastic tubs that puncture the yogurt pot lids?] Aldi shops won’t wait while you carefully put your stuff away into your separate bags for each commodity – it all comes wooshing off the belt into your box or trolley in no particular order with the washing powder on top of the ice cream on most occasions. Waitrose only release their own bags under protest, interrogate you on how many bags you’ve brought with you, whether they are standard size or extra large, and – if you’ve been sufficiently worthy – give you little green Ludo counters to put in one of three drums to support your choice of local charity. But never go to Tescos without your own bags because their ordinary plastic bags are so small, thin and useless that they split or break before you even get home. Morrisons plastic bags are the best for size and strength and can be reused many times over. Sainsburys used to provide large strong paper bags that would last ever so long [I still have two that must be over twenty years old] so why cannot the supermarkets and all other retailers do the same today [as Primark do]?

Totally, totally agree with this, many EU countries have adopted this, the UK, as per norm in the eco-awareness stakes lags far behind her neighbours. Retailers will more than re-coup the price of bags where they have to be issued and, more importantly, fewer bags,taking an eon to bio-degrade, if at all, end up in landfill. In reality it shouldn’t cost us anything other than a change in attitude – we remember to take the strong canvas/hessian bags (or keep them in the car) as much as we remember to take my wallet (please note it’s always MY wallet :)). It’s a no brainer. No excuse. Do not pass Go until you re-use your bags. Simple as. End of.

I suspect I’ll be in a minority on one but I’m not sure that plastic bags are quite the evil that they’re made out to be. They do a very good job of carrying goods (light, strong, waterproof) and they don’t really contribute to our key environmental problem which is global warming. They are of course a litter problem but so is much other packaging including glass, cardboard and plastic packaging. I wonder why they have been picked out with such enthusiasm? Reusing almost anything is generally a good thing to do, but reusing paper bags is much more problematic than plastic. At the end of its life a plastic bag can be recycled (essentially pure polythene) but some of the alternatives are mixtures of materials and not easily recycled.

My local supermarket charges for plastic bags (environmentally “good” they tell me) but keeps potatoes and various vegetables refrigerated. To cool something by one degree takes about 3 times the energy and carbon dioxide emission than to heat it by one degree but that seems to pass unnoticed. A tax on chilled food and free plastic bags would I suggest make more sense.

More tax? Why dont i just hand my entire wages over to the Government and be done with it? You want to tax chilled food now? That food which is locally produced, fresh food which helps the local economy and play into the hands of Frozen food importers?

The bit which made me laugh is i went into a Co-Operative store and they had a 5 foot cardboard sign up which said ‘we are committed to reducing the use of plastic bags’ which made me think ‘but clearly not cardboard.’

I dont throw my carrier bags in the road so i dont cause a litter problem so why should i be charged for it? And even if i was, my council tax pays for litter clearing.

wbdoyle says:
12 November 2010

Do away with all plastic bags Costco don’t supply bags of any description although they might have the occasional cardboard box which is re-cyclable.I come from a time when there was no such thing as a plastic bag. Ban the plastic!!!!

A thought — what is the environmental cost of minting all these extra 5p pieces? Probably more than creating the plastic…….Perhaps the Royal mint, being in South Wales has an input here?
As for thinking of the revenue, what revenue? As far as I can see it willl be extra profit for the supermarkets, I agree with wbdoyle — don’t supply any bags at all.

My thoughts exactly wbdoyle. Also there is a plastic pond in the mid Atlantic about the size of Paris or some other large city I believe.
Bio-degradable? They can only degrade into tiny particles which more than likely get eaten by animals and fish and ultimately us. I won’t use them despite the fact that those of us who don’t are paying for those who do.
Please think about not using them.

Liz i dont throw my plastic bags in the Sea. I doubt anybody here does that. Shouldnt we focus on stopping them ending up there after they’re thrown away rather than talk about endless taxing?

We have a kitchen waste bucket and we line it with supermarket bags. If bags are abolished I will have to purchase rolls of bin liners, so whats the point.

Our council supply bio degradable liner bags for cooked products you are throwing away; if they can do it for this why cant shops purchase them so we can use them?

In France you cant get bags in a supermarket, you have to bring your own or go without but sometimes they have cardboard boxes available

I fully agree with Peter Robson. This campaign (backed by retailers) is just a way for supermarkets (in particular) to increase revenue. Would bin liners which I had bought be any better for the environment than free carrier bags?
Furthermore, if they really were bothered about the environment, they would give away degradable bags (like the Co-op do) which at least goes part way to solving the problem.

josephine davies says:
13 November 2010

Do people realise the 5p charge will be on all single use carrier bags, including PAPER. Also clothes retailers will have to charge as well. I dont believe all the traders wanted this as they will have to record each sale, take expenses out, and donate the rest to charity. It will be a lot of hassle and they will be fined if they do not charge customers.

Charging for carrier bags has certainly changed my attitude. I did the majority of my food shoping at Marks & Spencer for the best part of twenty years until they started charging for bags. I haven’t shopped there since.
Like lots of people I do re-use my carrier bags by putting rubbish in them and then putting them in the wheelie bin. Charging for bags hasn’t reduced the amount of bags I use it just means that I now have to buy them on a roll at Poundland to put my kitchen waste in. Who wins? The supermarkets of course, they must be saving millions of pounds by not giving bags away. (and Poundland of course – they must be delighted)

I’m not sure supermarkets or high street stores are too worried about making profits from bags. I think they see the potential loss in free advertising from consumers who may not be as keen carrying their bags if they have to pay for them.

Also, (in response to other points above) I can’t see not being able to re-use plastic bags as bin liners being such a huge issue. You can buy (proper) bio-degradable refuse bags (they’ll be cheaper than the shop-charged ones) and in any case, with the amount of recycling that can be done relatively easily and minor changes in habits (i.e. buying things with less wasteful packaging) you shouldn’t need so many bin liners any way! It’s a really poor excuse imho.

Personally, I’d be happy for a charge to be introduced. Some of us can avoid it (by using other means) and those who don’t mind forking out, thereby contributing a small amount towards retailers’ profits, advertising and not to mention the growing issue of landfill (clearly, there are many visiting this page who don’t seem to mind), can have their bag. Everyone’s a winner.

pat griffiths says:
13 November 2010


may I suggest using a box. Failing that, try the container(s) supplied by your local authority. Problem solved.

There does seem to be an aspect of this proposal that has not been discussed. If I am charged for a bag then I assume I have made a purchase and therefore have a number of legal rights. For 5p I would reasonably expect a very high performance bag that I might reasonably expect to last for a year. If it doesn’t can I take it back for a replacement or refund?

Some stores of course offer refund/replace without question; assume this will work for bags as well? Perhaps the Which legal team might have a view?

Somehow I don’t think the charge for bags being discussed on this topic is anything to do with the quality of the bag itself. Though I may be mistaken.

Marjie C says:
13 November 2010

Why should we pay for bags that advertise the supermarket that we are shopping in? If when I forget my bags and have to use a supermarket bag I won’t quibble if they have their logo on the side and the bag is free. If I have to pay for my bag then I should get a choice of design on the bag and it should be able to hold my shopping and not fall apart.

I also use my plastic bags in my kitchen rubbish bin – and if I’m not given free ones, I would have to buy them. But nobody stops these supermarkets from selling plastic bags – so it is in their interest not to give away free ones. Simple solution: why can’t ALL these bags be biodegradable?

Not quite that simple. Biodegradable bags are not as strong and often get weaker with time. That means that reusing them is a problem. Also they can’t be recycled easily and would have to go to landfill. Perhaps worst of all if they get mixed with normal bags then the whole lot is non recyclable.

Malcolm M says:
14 November 2010

The problem with plastic bags is that they are not bio-degradeable, but everyone seems to have forgotten that it is the shops that imposed plastic bags on us. Prior to this all bags were made of paper, which is both bio-degradeable and nowadays comes from sustainable resources.
If I purchase an item from a shop I expect it to be in some sort of suitable container, either a little bag for one item or a larger bag for a number of purchases. I am not happy at walking out of a shop with an unwrapped item because it looks as if I have stolen it. Neither would I be happy at then entering another shop with this unwrapped item for the same reason. If I do not get a bag I shop elsewhere!
There is a similar situation with bottles, which used to be made of glass that can easily be recycled. Many years ago they all had a deposit on them and you never saw them abandoned, because small boys would take them back to the shop to get the deposit back on them. A much preferable situation to the one that exists now.

recycle says:
14 November 2010

In The Netherlands shoppers have to pay €0.25 for a carrier bag. As a result you will rarely see a shopper forget their carrier bags in The Netherlands. As far as I’m aware free carrier bags have never been issued and it is considered quite normal to provide your own shopping bags. It is about time we all think about recycling.

J Davies says:
15 November 2010

The Welsh Assembly Government is going to implement a charge next year on all SINGLE USE CARRIER BAGS, BOTH PLASTIC AND PAPER. I believed that paper bags were environmently friendly, biodegradable etc, and should not be charged for. However, the Welsh Assembly said tfhat the production of paper bags was worse for carbon footprint etc, and that is why single use paper bags were included in the proposed charge. Reusing own bags for food shopping is acceptable, but for other retail purchases, clothes etc, a new clean bag is necessary and should be provided by retailer.

Sophie Gilbert says:
18 November 2010

The issue at hand is reducing the number of bags, paper or plastic, that we manufacture in the first place, re-using them when we can, and recycling them when they come to the end of their lives. The issue is not whether supermarkets and others are making yet another bit of profit, whether we give them free advertising, or the premise that just because we’ve made a purchase we should have a choice and the product should last a year.

We can reduce the number of bags being manufactured by taking shopping bags wherever we go. The problem of leaving or entering shops with unbagged items then becomes non-existent. If purchasing items such as clothes, it isn’t difficult to use a nice shopping bag dedicated solely for that purpose. If we worry about our image, street cred or what not, let’s get ourselves a few funky shopping bags, they do exist. And there will come a time when shopping elsewhere because you’re not given a bag for free will not be much of an option, because you will have to pay for it just about everywhere. Just look at how more and more retailers are latching to on to this idea. And what’s wrong with using another dedicated shopping bag to do our recycling?

If we do manage to get hold of plastic bags at the supermarket or elsewhere, let’s make darn sure at the very least that we re-use them, to line our bins at home, or to shop again with, do our recycling or whatever. Then let’s darn make sure that we recycle the plastic bags once they have reached the end of their lives. Forget about plastic bags being biodegradable, the scientific fact is that they aren’t.

Regarding using bin liners instead of using supermarket plastic bags, it is unfortunately the case that too few of us reuse our plastic bags. Too many of us chuck them out in the bin without even beginning to think about recycling them, and then use bin liners! If supermarket bags are expensive to buy or disappear altogether, the amount of plastic manufactured and wasted will be reduced.