/ Shopping

Ban free carrier bags altogether, not just plastic?

Free plastic bags have divided opinion here on Which? Convo. Of late, the Prime Minister warned supermarkets to hand out fewer, with a ban on all single-use bags (including paper) coming into force in Wales.

David Cameron issued an ultimatum to supermarkets last week: cut down on the number of bags you give out or be forced to charge for them.

Last year the number of bags used rose by over 5% to 333 million, the first rise in five years.

Wales bans free single-use bags

From 1 October, all single-use bags handed out in Wales will incur a minimum charge of 5p. And we’re not just talking about supermarket plastic bags.

Any single-use bag, (i.e. ones not designed to be used again) will incur a charge, whether it’s plastic, paper or plant-based starch. Plus, all retailers will have to charge for bags, which I think is a good thing. The big bag focus has always been on supermarkets, but (as has often been said) this leaves other retailers to hand them out without penalty.

I have to admit that I’ve been known to pop into the clothing section of M&S first, bought something small, and then popped downstairs to use this free bag for my food purchases (where the bags are 5p a pop). The ban in Wales would put an end to such sneaky free clothing bags.

The ban on free bags would also apply to takeaways and fast food outlets, as well as internet grocery deliveries. I think the fast food one’s going to be a shock – can you imagine paying for the paper bag you get with your McDonald’s meal? We’re used to our brown paper bag with our lunch/breakfast/late-night snack on the way home* (*delete as applicable). And you can’t really put a kebab in your handbag…

As for online supermarkets, I know some give extra loyalty points if you choose not to have bags, but going bagless isn’t always practical. For example, we get a Sainsbury’s bulk delivery every 6-8 weeks as we don’t have a car. We live on the 2nd floor of a converted house, so as much as I’d like to turn down plastic bags there’s no way I’m carrying all my groceries up the stairs pack by pack.

Time to change our bag habits

But something does need to be done about the number of bags we use. They may not be the biggest environmental issue, but they are an issue. And wasteful. As Hannah Jolliffe pointed out on a previous Convo:

‘The reason that bags-for-life aren’t working hard enough is because it’s not ingrained in our culture. People aren’t using them for life, they’re buying them, forgetting them and then getting plastic bags. We’re in a no-man’s-land and people are just getting whatever’s convenient at the time.’

Yes it might be a hassle, but it’s something that becomes habit over time. I try to have at least one bag with me just in case I pop to the shops on my way home, but sometimes I forget (I’m not sure I can match Patrick Steen’s 50+ bags-for-life, but I’m close). And while 5p won’t break the bank for most, a bag-for-life isn’t that much more expensive and can be used again.

While I do think compulsory charging for carrier bags is a step towards addressing the problems they cause, I’d like to see the profits from those charges being ploughed back into environmental programmes and for this information to be published.

Wales has introduced a voluntary Code of Practice stating that proceeds should go to ‘good causes’, however there’s currently no obligation for retailers to do this. Otherwise it’s just another way for shops to make money from us.


Force councils to start giving out free bin and food bags again, and then I’ll be happy with a ban on carrier bags. Until them, leave them alone. They come in handy and not just for carrying shopping.


There are multiple uses for them once emptied of groceries, not least including for putting rubbish in for disposal since my local council has long ceased issuing black refuse bags for such purposes…. the government should leave such matters well alone and let the supermarkets use their discretion whether to issue carrier bags for free that I know two have not done, namely M&S and Lidl here in London. They both charge.

By all means, incentivise but there should be no element of compulsion in this regard.

Pete Massingham says:
13 October 2011

There should absolutely be a compulsory ban on plastic bags and councils should have a legal obligation to provide the means of effective rubbish disposal. If people could see the damage that plastic bags do to the environment and wild life they might just think again and stop being so selfish or lazy in their attitudes to rubbish disposal and shopping All over the world plastics and bages are doing immense damage to our ecology. I for one do not want to contribute to the growing mess and impending environmental catastrophe that is occuring! Take a look at this for a start.http://lensculture.com/jordan.html


Only a minority of people probably actually reuse the plastic bags.
People who read these Conversations ( and their friends etc) are probably all re-users .
The issue is achieving a culture change and getting everyone else to reuse bags.

Oh and while paper bags may decompose easily they generate as much or more CO2 in their manufacture as plastic ones and dont tend to be reused.


I think the government needs to change peoples habits. We had an old phrase book for France dated 1981 and in it it observed that in a supermarket even back then people provided their own bags. So if the Europeans have been doing it for years then why have we got so lazy?, Yes I do recycle carrier bags when I am guilty of getting one but they often blow out of bins and not only are they unsightly litter but they are hazardous to wildlife and the sea constitution is becoming more accidic due to plastic in general. They dont last very long and they are polluting in manufacturing. so bring it on.


….blow out of bins and….?

But if filled sufficiently with rubbish and bin is lidded, I do not see how this could have happened as gravity will see to that and in my case, I additionally secure the top properly with a reef knot.

Jackson says:
4 October 2011

5p is absurd.
Carrier bags should cost £2.
I am constantly offered a “small bag” at M&S, it is disgusting, they shouldn’t be in existence let alone offered to me.
If they cost £2 then nobody would forget their bag for life again.


England and Scotland should follow Ireland and Wales in charging for bags.

Someone has to pay for these bags. Why should I pay if you want free bags and why should you pay for me to have free bags?

It uses energy and resources to make bags, whether or not they are biodegradable, made of plastic or made of paper.


The idea behind the charge is surely to conserve energy and resources.

Charging the end user is a way of doing that.

Admittedly it would be nice if retailers could adjust the price of their products accordingly…


The author’s comment on going bagless for online shopping puzzles me. My Tesco man carries the crates in to our kitchen and I unload direct onto the counter top. Admittedly not all supermarkets have a policy of ‘delivering to the fridge door’. If they had to deliver bagless mind, supermarkets would then have to either deliver to the fridge door or be patient whilst people unloaded from the delivery crates into their own crates, boxes or bags.



Online deliveries come to the front door of my house. However, I live on the second floor as the house has been converted into flats. As far as I’m aware (and please correct me if I’m wrong), Sainsbury’s don’t have a policy of delivering to the kitchen. Also, it’s completely impractical – and potentially unsafe – to get those crates up our stairs.

We mostly used Sainsbury’s, but have previously had a Tesco Wine delivery to this flat. That didn’t come up the stairs either.

In my last house they delivered to the (ground floor) kitchen, and when we move we’ll be in a purpose built block of flats, so everything will be coming straigh to the kitchen (via the lift). And we will most definitely go bagless!


This is a bit like the low-energy lamps controversy – forcing consumers to do something they do not like because businesses just will not do [or government doesn’t have the nerve to make them do] sensible things to protect the environment. With shop doors open to the four winds, escalators running when empty, all tills lit up even when there are no staff to operate them [they even say so!], old-fashioned fridges chucking out hot air and badly maintained aircon units simultaneously struggling to cool it, large lorries with small loads left idling in the delivery area, vast excesses of goods having to be given away by charities – and they point the finger at me for wanting to stop the defrosting ice-cream from wetting the shopping and the detergent from tainting the teabags. Had a delivery from John Lewis today; enough polythene to stuff a cushion [if that’s your idea of a good time].

Mrs Smith says:
8 October 2011

Well said! The problem doesn’t stop with plastic bags… I have enough cardboard boxes in my garage to build a decent sized den with multiple rooms for my kids! With cardboard not being recycled by my local council, I am forced to either drive them to a cardboard recycling facility myself (we live rural in the middle of nowhere so a minimum 7 mile drive is required) or I have to put them with the general waste collection, knowing it will end up in landfill and not recycled… Not to mention the amount of plastic used for ‘protective measures’ to ensure my product arrives undamaged – why is there a cardboard box around it in the first place? To protect the product surely!


I think that charging a small fee for plastic bags is a good way to change behaviour.
It has worked well in Ireland so we should not be afraid to embrace change.