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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?


Great idea! They do this in Sweden and my Swedish friends and family never forget to take their re-usable bags to the shops!

Margaret Seymour says:
11 August 2011

I think the best answer would be the heavy-duty, brown paper bags without handles, American style. ( No charge for these but perhaps a small charge for the same with handles.) They look better, would not kill wildlife if they “got away” and are eminently recycleable ! People could leave their used plastic bags for those who prefer them until the things run out. But it wouldn’t take long to get used to the paper ones. They would be my first choice, anyway. Cardboard boxes being made available for carrying unusually heavy items would help too.

Margaret – Recycling these paper bags uses a lot of energy and water, and bags made from recycled paper would not be as strong. Treating paper to make it stronger when damp makes it difficult to recycle and harder to compost. What’s wrong with getting some decent bags and using them for the next ten or more years? In my parents’ generation, people used to have proper shopping bags.

Ivor says:
11 August 2011

A few years ago the major supermarkets started pushing sdhopping boxes as a replacement for plastic bags, some even had special trolleys for them, though there were never enough trolleys so the boxes must have been popular. Aside from the reduce plastic bag use they fit into the car boot nicely, don’t fall over and spill their contents over the boot. Mine have been in use week in week out for a few years now and show no signs of breaking down. Another good idea abandoned in the face of fashion,

Good point Ivor. I’ve never used these as I don’t drive, but he vast majority of supermarket trips are done in cars by drivers and their families.
Also, when shopping is delivered by supermarkets, which I use a lot as a non-driver, I wish they would pack the shopping into such crates and boxes, instead of into at least treble the numb roy plastic bags I would ever use. It’s so infuriating when Waitrose deliver a single carton of cream in a huge strong plastic carrier just because it was the only dairy item on the list, or 2 dozen cans of cat food in 6 bags, 4 tins per bag “in car the handle gives way” – it’s in a lorry for goodness sake!!!!!!
The crates idea for individual car based shopper sand for supermarket delivery vans is a superb way forward.

Plasticplace.net says:
11 August 2011

This can’t be the exact solution if we want to lessen the production of plastic materials. Though, somehow it will help a lot. But the fact remains, the amount of plastic waste will double each year. And what we can do is to do our part, to reuse and learn the right way of disposing wastes.

John Forbes-Buckingh says:
12 August 2011


Keith says:
12 August 2011

We regularly take a large number of our own bags to the supermarket each week. However, we do use the supermarket bags for damp or frozen goods – in order to protect the rest of our shopping. We always reuse these supermarket bags. Very often we use them to collect the rubbish from around the home before putting it in the wheelie bin. This rubbish being the stuff the local authority will not recycle like envelopes….

Russ says:
12 August 2011

Ban plastic bags or get them made from biodegradable materials and charge for them

Lynne Morgan says:
13 August 2011

An outright ban might be tricky but maybe it’s the only way to change people’s behaviour. Often we have to resort to law to make changes (smoking, seat belts) and after a lot of grumbling people just seem to get on with it. It’s really not that difficult to carry a couple of expandable bags around with you that can be re-used for years. People who say they forget to take bags with them are just highlighting a different problem – one of behaviour, not bags.

Paulbutler says:
13 August 2011

Tesco give you bags, Waitrose do, Asda do – M and S food don’t and some Smiths’ shops seem to have decided that you should pay them to protect your new books/magazines. ( I don’t buy anything from M+S now, and only purchase from Smiths’ if they give me a bag – otherwise I leave my selection of whatever I was going to buy on the counter.)
I always take a recyclable bag if I am specifically going, say, to Tesco’s for a food shop, but inevitably, probably thanks to their clever marketing in store, I end up buying more than the bags I’ve taken will hold – if they didn’t give me plastic bags I wouldn’t purchase the rest of my shopping.
However, this from the Times points out what was happening when Brown decided to join the green “religion”:
From The Times
March 8, 2008
Series of blunders turned the plastic bag into global villain
Alexi Mostrous
“Scientists and environmentalists have attacked a global campaign to ban plastic bags which they say is based on flawed science and exaggerated claims.
“The widely stated accusation that the bags kill 100,000 animals and a million seabirds every year are false, experts have told The Times. They pose only a minimal threat to most marine species, including seals, whales, dolphins and seabirds.
“Gordon Brown announced last month that he would force supermarkets to charge for the bags, saying that they were “one of the most visible symbols of environmental waste”. Retailers and some pressure groups, including the Campaign to Protect Rural England, threw their support behind him.
“But scientists, politicians and marine experts attacked the Government for joining a “bandwagon” based on poor science.
…Note that Ireland’s production and use of plastic has increased six-fold since the ban on supermarket plastic bags.
The Left-wing “green” activists, and now Boris, seem to think that no one has any common sense nor can think for themselves.
The supermarkets in this country are providing a service – we choose to use their bags or take our own, but the “damage” to the environment by their bags is completely unproven ( apart from that caused by the usual people who deposit rubbish/litter without a care).
Unless you arrive by car, with your own bags within, you would have to carry something, to put shopping in, around with you all day – fine if you don’t work and just pop out specifically to shop, but unrealistic for anyone else.
The plastic bag has been a boon for thinking people who DO recycle – many people, including me have not bought bin liners for many years, and have always recycled / re-used any plastic carrier bag.(Unlike Brown who has said that he and his wife throw away countless plastic carriers.)
N.B plastic bags in landfill do not contribute to CO2, whereas bio-degradable bags release methane into the atmosphere ( as do cows – causing 6 times as much pollution as the World’s cars do ).

Seems like excuses to me. Making disposable plastic bags is a waste of resources and energy for the sake of convenience. It’s not necessary to invoke science or politics for this to be plain to everyone. Let’s hope that someone dreams up a way of coping with dwindling resources before the oil, etc. runs out.


Even if you question the claims relating to disposal of plastic bags, the fact that producing the bags uses raw materials and energy can not be disputed, and the same applies for paper bags.

You are absolutely right that non-biodegradable plastic bags do not produce carbon dioxide in landfill, and the same applies with most plastics. Perhaps you would like to volunteer your back garden for disposal of plastic bags. 🙂

Chris says:
16 August 2011


I am not a fan of single use carrier bags, but an outright ban may not be the solution. I favour the idea of imposing a levy to incentivise consumers to consume bags more carefully.

The main issue here is that the price mechanism isn’t working properly, leading to an excess demand in bags. Most of the bags are provided ‘free’ (although this is not entirely true as they will be priced into the whole shopping we do) to us consumers, hence we do not really place any value on them and tend to use too many.

While we perceive them as being free, there is actually a large price tag attached to them. These are the social costs fro production and consumption and are not factored in. These are the costs of
air and waterbourne emissions emitted through the production process, carbon emissions through ransportation and the cost of final consumption by ending in land fill.

I think a levy on single use carrier bags should reflect the damage to the environment. It is possible that this may be between 5 to 15p per bag. I do agree, however, that this may be too low to get the appropriate change in behaviour.


Ruth says:
18 August 2011

Plastic bags should be free to shoppers until the shops can be bothered issuing paper bags.

Personally I reuse mine as binbags, freezer bags, etc. If free bags were not available, I would have to buy bin liners, freezer bags and so on… what exactly is the difference there? Except that I would be more out of pocket and the shop has more of my money.

I was faced with a plastic bag charge last time I shopped at M&S (I’ve not been back)… only to get home and find several of their own-brand products wrapped in several different layers pf plastic. The next shop that asks me to pay for a plastic bag will be faced with replacing my shopping on its shelves.

Margaret Seymour says:
2 September 2011

Ruth, I was pleased to see you would be in favour of paper bags replacing plastic ones. It always strikes me as the obvious solution as they are biodegradable and preferable in many ways.( I like the type you see at the start of “The Simpsons”!) Plastic could still be used for wet goods etc.
Incidentally, there has been an improvement in the care people are taking in disposing of plastic bags. I rarely see them festooning trees and fences now as used to be the case. That is one good result of all the fuss being made about them, anyway.

Discarded paper bags will not festoon trees because the trees will have been cut down to make the bags. 🙂

Only kidding, and I’m aware that paper is only made from certain types of tree, but surely it is a huge waste of resources to make paper bags. Why not just take good strong bags to the shops – ones that can be used hundreds or thousands of times.

Margaret Seymour says:
3 September 2011

Many of us do. (E.g I own 7 of the strong canvas store bags.) But, for the times we forget them, or need more than 7,say, or shop on the spur of the moment, or only need one item, or for those who simply prefer NOT to keep them, I think that paper bag hand-outs would be much better than plastic. Unarguably more aesthetic, and an easy solution to the plastic bag controversy.

North Wales says:
25 September 2011

I live in Wales and have no problem with the 5p charge for carrier bags – I have for a long long time been making a concerted effort not to use any. This was originally in response to getting over run with them when forgetting to take them back for re-use or recycling. I bought several brilliant jute bags from Sainsbury’s with padded handles long enough to go over the shoulder a couple of years ago – have used them endlessly unfortunately now they’re starting to biodegrade! I have a trolley on wheels but my husband and children hate me using it as they find it an embarrassment so have to share the load as a compromise.

Has anybody noticed them 10p bags you can get in Asda or Co-Operative and places like that are still made out of plastic? A bit thicker and hard wearing maybe but they’re still plastic. Ive got some of those hessian bags which i use for my trips to the Post Office as they’re an excellent size for parcels, and ive got all sorts of 10p bags in the boot of my car but i ALWAYS forget to take them in the supermarket so i then end up buying more, which i forget to use and eventually i have a massive pile of them and they get thrown out.

The real point though, is that they say we should be taxed on them because they end up in the sea and choke fishes etc…….i dont throw them in the sea. Ive never thrown anything in the sea. Why should i be paying for what is obviously someone elses mistake? Surely instead of charging 10p a bag we should be preventing them ending up in the sea and forests etc?

Jon Harwood says:
10 October 2011

I always try to use bags for life, but it’s interesting that some supermarkets (M&S) for example were very keen to charge for any plastic bags. It seems to me it’s mostly a scam, and an aid to inflate supermarket profits. Why are paper bags not used, at least they can easily be recycled and are the norm in the USA. I have been known to rant at the manager, or tell the staff to put my purchases back on their shelves when they want to charge for bags, I can see this may become a more frequent event. Why don’t the government just stop interfering in daily life, and get on with the job of getting us out of present financial difficulties and getting our brave troops home from distant parts.

Ban all free bags. If you take your own bag shopping and separate your waste you don’t need any. Take responsibility for yourself!