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.