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Will you back Boris Johnson’s ban on free plastic bags?

Man carrying supermarket bags

Mayor Boris Johnson wants to ban free plastic bags across London before the 2012 Olympics, calling them an ‘unnecessary scourge on our environment’. Will you back Boris, or is there still room for plastic bags?

According to WRAP, plastic bag usage went up by 5% last year – and it’s riled up Boris Johnson – he wants London to be a ‘plastic bag free city’ and is ‘planning a renewed campaign to help do so ahead of 2012 when the eyes of the world are on us.’

At the moment, London doesn’t have the power to ban or charge for carrier bags – it’ll need special permission from Westminster. However, Wales is well on the way to implementing a 5p levy on single-use bags, which it hopes will cut usage by 90%.

Boris will be keeping an eye on how this turns out – but what about you? Do you think free plastic bags need to die out?

Plastic bag usage on the up

Ignoring other retailers, supermarkets gave out a whopping 6.4 billion plastic bags last year, 333 million more than in 2009. Some say this is due to supermarkets abandoning their policy to keep carrier bags from check-outs. And it’s a stat that’s piling pressure on the government to introduce a levy on plastic bags in London.

This isn’t a new idea – London Councils campaigned for a ban on free plastic bags in 2008, which was then dropped after assurances that the issue would be tackled. They want to take up the cause again, with Jules Pipe, chairman of London Councils, commenting:

‘While single-use bags are a small element of the waste stream, they are hugely symbolic of our throwaway culture – a culture that we can’t continue.’

Personally, I’m not sure charging just 5p is enough. And it doesn’t look like you’re convinced either – 80% of you voted that plastic bags should be free in a previous Convo poll.

The 5p tax on carrier bags

For me, 5p isn’t a big enough deterrent or, more importantly, a big enough incentive to remember my reusable bags. In fact, when I do forget my reusables, I simply buy another (I find them stronger and more roomy than throwaway carriers) hence my hefty collection of well over 50 reusable plastic bags.

So should we instead embrace a full ban on single-use plastic bags?

Four years ago the town of Modbury in Devon did just that – all of its shops now use corn-starch, paper or cloth bags. Commenter Rachel backs this sentiment:

‘My opinion is do away with plastic bags altogether in supermarkets. It’s a cultural thing […] we are too used to having the convenience of plastic bags and it’s time we weaned ourselves off them!’

Then again, Ireland’s plastic bag tax appears to have worked. Since its 15 cents levy was introduced in 2002, carrier bag usage has dropped from 27 per person to just two in 2009.

Is banning bags the answer?

Not everyone feels this way, with a spokesperson for the Packaging and Films Association (PAFA) criticising all banning plans:

‘Analysis has made it clear that plastic, if re-used then recycled, is the best environmental choice. Politicians looking to appeal to green voters should not insult their intelligence. They would do better to accept the science.’

The PAFA spokesperson goes on to say that Boris should encourage a ‘reduce, re-use and recycle’ habit rather than talking about a ban – ‘people don’t want bans or taxes. They want authoritative advice on environmental issues.’

So where do you stand? Will our plastic bag obsession change with environmental advice, or like Boris, do you think there needs to be more drastic action, like a plastic bag tax or ban?


I use my plastic bags as bin bags since my council has stopped giving me free bags to use. Force companies to make their plastic bags truly recyclable, instead of banning them

I’ve great sympathy with William (above) but I have to say (and it really hurts me to agree with Boris at all) that I actually think an outright ban on FREE plastic bags is a SUPERB idea.

I wish that the government would implement it nationwide by law.

I was hoping that by now we would have edible bags in a range of flavours. I cannot see why supermarkets and other shops don’t go back to paper bags. I still have a number of paper carrier bags from Sainsbury’s in the 1970’s – very strong, two could hold a week’s shopping for one man and his dog. Safeway used to provide the American type without handles – I still have one of those somewhere. The nearest equivalent today is the Primark bag which is perfectly serviceable. With all due respect to the PAFA rep, he or she would say that wouldn’t they? Plastic bags cannot beat paper for biodegradability [although I have to admit they have advantages in the rainy season]. Given that most people still seem to go shopping by car Supermarkets should make more cardboard boxes available; unfortunately they are so busy recycling them to reduce their carbon footprint and earn a few pennies from the paper mill, at the same time compelling the product suppliers to put their goods in break-open boxes for easy shelf-stacking, that such useful things are hard to come by. I think a plastic bag tax would bear heavily on people who can least afford it and also do not have the means to provide an alternative form of transport for their shopping. I remember when shop assistants were trained to say “Shall I wrap it up or will you wear it”; today I bought some elasticated knee bandages in Boots and the very thought entered my head when the young lady at the till made the routine enquiry “Ju-wanna-ba-a-ag?”. Oh well, every little helps, I suppose . . .

Love your points about boxes John, and I agree. My parents shopped at our local co-op from 1957 when they married until the present day. Mum still goes there once a week. Until 1984 they always had stacks of boxes that you helped yourself to and filled with your goods. Yorkshire co-op took over from S&E in 1984 and the boxes disappeared never to return. It’s so wasteful.

If a levy on plastic bags has worked well in Ireland, why not try it here? It is not difficult to take decent quality reusable bags to the supermarket, it it?

Disposable bags, whether plastic or paper, are an unnecessary waste of resources.

When I worked in retail (1985 to 1994) Beatties (the defunct toy shop, not he Brum dept store) refused to give bags any bigger than needed for the item(s) bought and at one point we charged a penny per bag regardless of it’s size. We also still had great rolls of paper and wrapped items like Scalextric sets in that. Shortly before I left we did start to be rather more lax in giving bags away because so many customers tutted and got ar*y with us if they didn’t get a bag with handles (our smallest didn’t have any).
In my opinion the customer is to blame for the greater part of the bag problem as they have been too lazy to bring bags and then expect one with handles for every purchase.
Some stores have not helped by insisting on using their own bags so the security staff can see you’ve paid.
Coles Brothers (John LEwis in Sheffield) always had paper bags for even quite big items, but of course these had no handles and I guess they demised with the demand for handles on all bags. Coles seem to put everything in huge plastic bags now – maybe fewer sizes costs them less or maybe now John Lewis insist on all stores being “corporate” it’s a JLP policy.
I think we need to have far more incentives to re-use or use your own. Sainsbury’s use dto give 5 p off I think if you used your own bag. NOt been in Sainsburys for years to see what they do now.

Waitrose took ALL bags off the checkouts and gave them to you one at a time if you asked for a while. That was great but then stacks of bags reappeared and when I asked one checkout lady why she said that they had too many complaints from angry customers so they had been told to just let people have them again.

I don’t know what the answer is other than something like the Irish solution mentioned by Wavechange or an outright ban on plastic bags.

What if you forget your bags? Or live in a city and don’t have a car?

I object to having to pay just because we forget our bags from time to time and therefore would never support a ban. Considering the technology at our disposal, I am amazed that we are still using the same plastic bags.

Could it be that the supermarkets are just paying it lip service and using it as a commercial opportunity to sell bags rather than invest in an alternative?

Do the supermarkets have to wait for dragons dens to find an inventor of a new, strong, fully biodegradable bag? honestly, plastic is cheap and easy, why are they not forced to create an alternative if indeed, this is such a major issue as Boris thinks it is?

Chris says:
10 August 2011

Do you ever forget your money when you go shopping…?!

What if you live a long way outside the city / away from the shops and don’t drive? That’s my position and whilst I’m not going to pretend that I always remember my bags – I don’t – I do know of little old ladies who live near to me who take a bus or in some cases walk the three miles to Sheffield and the three miles back, and every single time they take their shopping bags and / or shopping basket on wheels with them.
I’m not suggesting that we all do the same, but what I am saying is that if some people can do it (I suspect because they grew up in the war time years of make do and mend and have been used to it from being children) then actually we can all learn to do it and I think we should make every human effort possible to do so.
I really don’t think that objecting to pay for a bag when you have forgotten yours should be a reason to keep free bags: after all, for a huge number of people forgetting will be very rare and having to pay when they do will help them to remember every time, and for an even greater number of people (I guess) having to pay is the only thing that will ever make them take out reusable bags in the first place.

I agree with Dave. When I lived at Uni I was a good 1/2 hour walk away from a supermarket, so it was a bit of a trek when laden down with shopping, but I managed to do it by taking a rucksack with me and carrying my shopping. If anything in situations where transport is difficult, almost anything is better than having to carry your stuff in flimsy plastic shopping bags.

I wish they would bring a ban in. How hard is it really to take a bit of personal responsibility and accept that, if you forget bags, you pay? It would soon become second nature to carry bags everywhere.

It still amazes me when I see families doing a massive shop and using endless carrier bags – even doubling them up to make them stronger. Times that by everyone shopping around the country and it’s such a lot of needless waste.

Then there’s the other side of the coin – shopkeepers. They need to be educated too, and I’m not just talking about big supermarkets. When I shop in local shops in my area they all try to put your shopping in those blue plastic bags – sometimes I’m not quick enough to say ‘I don’t need a bag’ and I suddenly have five carriers I don’t want!

Here’s another idea – ban branding on bags. Too many shop bags are accepted because people like the design – and of course, shops try to give them out to advertise their brand. But if all shops had to have plain white bags, for example, both those issues would be eradicated!

But why should forgetting your bag mean that they can invoke another method of charging you? Surely Which should be against this?

Besides, do you actually carry your bags around with you all the time? What if you buy something you can’t fit in a handbag? or buy something on a whim?

Honestly, if the bags were biodegradable, there wouldn’t be an issue, banning and/or charging is such a draconian, old-fashioned way of influencing people, sorry “nudging”, and where there isn’t an alternative, why should people be punished in the wallet?

Use technology to create a cheap, biodegradable alternative, pricing people out and banning things will not make it go away, history tells us this. If you expect us all to walk around every day with an army of plastic bags on our arm then we will end up looking like a nation of tramps, or eco mentalists, I don’t know what is worse 🙂

Just like to clarify that the comments I’m making are my own, not necessarily reflecting any Which? view or stance.

Adding to my earlier point, and thinking about Hannah’s point about attractive bags as well as Dean’s point about are we always going to take bags out, maybe the answer is for more places to make (and SELL, not GIVE) the attractive strong shopping bags (like Waitrose, Harrods, and the range of Little / Medium / Big Brown Bags so that people would be happy to take out an attractive looking permanent shopping bag?

I’ve got to be honest, my own view is that there is not the slightest difficulty in folding up your plastic bags which takes a few seconds per bag and means you can then get at least 15 into the pocket of an outdoor coat (I know as I do this), cargo shorts (I know as I do this too), a handbag (I don’t do this!!) or whatever. But if people’s lives really are so hectic that they don’t even have time to do this then having strong shopping bags that are “fashionable” will perhaps help those time-poor people?

Even if it was possible to make cheap, strong biodegradable plastic bags it would be a waste of resources to do this, just like manufacturing bottled water – the subject of a recent Conversation.

The problem of plastic bags has received a lot of publicity and most of us are still addicted to them, so the only realistic alternatives are to make customers pay or introduce a ban.

If appearance is important then there are plenty of alternatives to plastic bags, and if well made they could be used for years. Let’s stop making excuses and start being responsible, as Hannah suggests.

Claire says:
10 August 2011

The Environment Agency produced a life cycle assessment of plastic bags in February. It clearly showed that the ‘bag for life’ has to be reused numerous times for it to be less environmentally damaging than a normal plastic carrier bag. It also showed that reusing a normal plastic bag as a bin liner is much more environmentally friendly than recycling it:
“The reuse of conventional HDPE and other lightweight carrier bags for shopping
and/or as bin-liners is pivotal to their environmental performance and reuse as bin
liners produces greater benefits than recycling bags.
• The paper, LDPE, non-woven PP and cotton bags should be reused at least 3, 4,
11 and 131 times respectively to ensure that they have lower global warming
potential than conventional HDPE carrier bags that are not reused.”

We need to make sure we (and Boris!) understand the issues before we form our opinions.

A really interesting study, although I still believe in the ban. Why? Because 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.

As soon as it’s clear that you have to pay for bags those bags for life will be carried around and used a whole lot more. It seems to have worked in Ireland, and in a few years’ time we’ll see if it has worked in Wales.

The report mentioned by Claire is available online:


I don’t know about the quality of the science but the standard of presentation is not very good.

I absolutely agree Claire, but I don’t think this is any reason to keep giving bags away for free. Regardless of the EA’s study, the least environmental impact is obtained by reusing all types of bag until they are no longer serviceable, and this means using carrier bags of every type until they fall apart, rather than just as bin liners after they have carried only one load of shopping.
Maybe Boris’ ban is slightly “crowbar” like, but as others have already said, alternative inducements to get the public to reuse and recycle have so far failed to reach an alarmingly large portion of the public.
Hannah’s follow up comment to your report of the EA’s study I think contains the crucial information: reuse is not ingrained into our culture., and so far attempts to rectify this have basically failed.

While I can see the points made by those suggesting we develop a biodegradable bag, or at the very least one that is less harmful to the environment than plastic, even in this situation it still makes sense for people to reuse their bags as much as possible.

The carbon costs of producing bags means that disposable bags should be discouraged wherever possible, whether they’re plastic or biodegradable.

I’m not sure I agree on an outright ban (I really *really* hate the idea of banning things), but I’d be up for a charge, or anything else that would more strongly encourage re-use.

Leaving aside supermarket shopping which most goes straight in the car, other shopping is usually carried around for a while and a plastic bag is needed to protect it from the weather, so paper .cotton and hessian types are not very practical.

Hmm, I see Rarrar’s point, but I’m dubious: most goods these days come shrink wrapped in endless (unnecessary) packaging and the bag is probably the least protective element in all of that.
Additionally, a lot of trendy shops selling very high value goods (e.g. Applestore, Office, Republic, Bang & Olufson) are already using paper bags as a marketing point (“look at how green we are!”) and if paper bags are good enough for Mac computers & accessories, expensive fashion clothes and Hi-Fi equipment, I’m sure they are good enough for most other non-grocery goods.

Folk devil of the chattering class adn control freaks.


Plastic bags are made mainly from oil and the rising cost of oil and energy needed to make them will make bags cost more. Hopefully this will encourage these convenience products being phased out in favour of bags that can be used many times.

When considering the environmental effect of manufacturing products it is necessary to have a broad understanding. To cut down the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (the main ‘greenhouse gas’, all that is needed is to convert carbon dioxide into plastics and bury the plastics in the ground or dump them at sea. This would work but would require an enormous amount of energy to produce the plastic. What looks like a good idea is flawed.

I agree with Boris – all free plastic bags should be banned – we never used to have them and always got on perfectly well with paper bags and our own shopping bags (and I am not harking back to the War). They are expensive to produce and are rarely recycled so end up in landfill. Let’s go back to carrying our own bags and have paper bags for produce in supermarkets!

Rose S says:
11 August 2011

Legislation should force Plastics companies to produce fully compostable plastic, and producers/supermarkets should be taxed heavily on non-green options (eg over-packaging, plastic-stick rather than card-stick cotton buds, and plastic milk bottles). It is laziness that make people ‘unable’ to manage without – our mothers and grandmothers carried their own shopping bags to the market, and these days most folk go in cars! Follow the French fashion of providing free cardboard boxes at supermarkets for drivers’ use, and everyone else can use linen bags, perhaps supplied free on a loyalty scheme? With regards to dustbins, most councils provide closed-lid bins these days, so why do we even need to put our waste in bags within them?

Margaret says:
11 August 2011

Plastic bags should not even exist. Apart from the litter problem they are filling up the Atlantic and killing our dolphins, turtles etc. If they weren’t there people would be forced to use other options which are bound to be greener. Recycling them just delays the problem as they are bound to be discarded at some point.

These bags Which is calling one trip can actually be used many times. If people used them repeatedly instead of binning them there would be no problem.

I was going to give you a ‘thumbs up’ until I got to the penultimate word. I disagree that there would be “NO problem”, but there would certainly be a vastly reduced problem, reduced so far in fact that compared to what we have now it would feel like “no” problem.

Its very easy to get pious about this. Perhaps those who are so vehemently against plastic bags, want to tax them or ban them, and never cease exhorting us to take resusable bags everywhere at all times in case we feel the hedonistic urge to do a little bit of shopping should first declare how many handbags, suitcases, briefcases and other miscellaneous portmanteaux they have caused to be manufactured and lay unused in corners of wardrobes, spare rooms or car boots. Husbanding the world’s resources requires nothing less than total commitment. Oh yes.
By Jove, . . . I feel better for that!

You are absolutely right John. I’ll bet that many ‘bags for life are used only once’ and that many people have reusable bags that rarely get used. Anyone who is commuting long distances, either by car or public transport, is using a lot more resources and creating more pollution than caused by their use of plastic bags. Having said that, I don’t think it would affect the quality of life to get rid of disposable plastic bags and some supermarkets have demonstrated environmental responsibility, at least in this respect.

It is all very well wanting paper bags but what about the additional cost of transporting them to the shops. They take up far more room so therefore need more lorries, more fuel etc to transport them. Education to use reuse bags is the way to go.

Mal – have you seen how thin Tesco free bags are? you would be lucky to get your shopping to the car, let alone use it again!

Claire’s point (and something Hannah wrote further up the board) raises another aspect to this: the quality of the bags.
If the bags are unfit for purpose (i.e. won’t even stand ONE use) then people will double them up and the manufacturing of the bags was a complete waste of all resources involved anyway.
Apart from whether bags should be free or not and what they are made of, ANY bags that are sold or given away do need to be up to the job they are made for to avoid utterly pointless waste, which just adds to the problem with zero mitigating benefit.
I don’t agree that paper bags are going to incur greater transportation costs thought: have you ever trued lifting a box of 1,000 plastic bags and their paper equivalent? I have, many times when I worked at Beatties, and I can safely tell you that 1,000 plastic bags weighs significantly heavier than 1,000 paper bags. Claire may be right about the room taken up though – I don’t recall the relative sizes of the boxes they came in, though they can’t have been vastly different.