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Are we getting carried away with plastic bag use?

Plastic bag use by the supermarkets is on the rise again – eight billion single-use plastic bags were given away to shoppers last year. But who is responsible for weaning us off them?

We’re using 10% more single-use plastic carrier bags than we were two years ago, according to the latest figures from the Waste Resources Action Plan (Wrap). But how much of a problem is this? And is it our responsibility to fix it, or should the government and retailers be playing their part too?

Supermarket solutions

UK supermarkets no longer have targets to reduce the number of bags used, but when they did, it worked. In 2008, leading supermarkets signed an agreement to supply 50% fewer single-use plastic bags by 2009. They achieved 48%.

But since the agreement ended in May 2009, plastic bag use has risen again. This shows that supermarkets can’t reduce carrier bag use without regulation. So should they go back to having targets for reduction?

M&S is the only one of the seven major supermarkets to charge for bags – with profits going to charity. This has resulted in a 78% drop in bag use at its stores. Should other supermarkets follow suit? When we asked you last year, eight in ten thought plastic bags should be free.

Is it us or them?

We can all, as consumers, decide to stop accepting single-use plastic bags and use reusable bags instead, as well as reusing or recycling any single-use bags we pick up. When we asked consumers, 92% say they do reuse single-use plastic carrier bags, either for shopping (53%) or as bin liners (74%).

The government could have a role in this too – perhaps it could implement a ban or a charge for plastic bags? Countries that force shops to impose a charge on plastic bags have seen massive drops in the numbers given away. The 5p levy on single-use carrier bags introduced in Wales in 2011 resulted in Morrisons reducing carrier bag use by more than 80%.

Since 2002, shops in the Republic of Ireland have put a levy on all plastic bags (except reusable ones) to curb litter. From April 2013, shoppers in Northern Ireland will also be charged 5p a bag. But what about England? In a recent Which? survey we found that over half of people in England support a 5p charge.

A throwaway society?

Plastic bags are a symbol of our disposable society and 80% of the people asked in our survey said they are concerned about the environmental impact of plastic bags. But actually they make up less than 1% of household waste and their environmental impact is small compared to, for example, food and packaging waste. Because of this, some argue that we should be focusing on other, more impactful, environmental issues.

Do we need to be concerned about plastic bags? And if so, is it a problem for the government and supermarkets to resolve, or a challenge that consumers need to embrace ourselves?


As Ian says, there are many other ways we use plastic bags. Our use of plastic should certainly be reviewed

I believe it is right to tackle free supermarket bags first because it is so easy to take bags to the supermarket. Bags sold at the checkout should cover the cost of production and the cost of disposal, but that will not do anything about the amount of oil we use to produce them.

the article this month is fascinating – 131 uses for a cotton bag to be better for the environment. And 3 for a paper bag (which will never happen)

One issue is that Tesco bags for example are so much worse than Morrisons bags. You can get a lot more in the latter and it is less likely to need double bagging. Saving weight on each bag is possibly a false economy.

I’d prefer the incentives for using your own bags to be more widespread

I am referring back to the interesting comments above on polyethylene magazine wrappers and the disposal problems with all sorts of plastic packaging. I have been wondering why the landfill issue usually gets cited as the most serious concern. An increasing amount of the UK’s unrecyclable waste is dealt with by incineration and our county, like others and prompted by the government as a matter of policy as well as through the landfill tax mechanism, is moving towards that method of disposal. Surely the incineratioon of so much plastic material cannot be good for the environment [even if the flue gases are “scrubbed” this uses other finite resources, transport, energy, etc}.

Unfortunately our local authority does not want poly wraps in the recycling bin but neither does it want any paper envelopes [because of the glue in the joins and seals] so what now goes to landfill and would degrade over time willl in due course be incinerated with immediate consequences.

As has so eloquently been said by others above, we just have to arrest the use of plastic wrapping and packaging in all its forms.

ichfrage says:
28 August 2012

What a lot of fuss about nothing. Our bin is filled with packaging that supermarkets have to use, because any one can handle foodstuffs, so it is deemed essential to carefully wrap every item. Our plastic bags are required to line the waste bin in the kitty, and if no free bags, then we shall have to purchase them, and so still use plastic bags.
Folk should be sensible and accept only so many bags as they require, and never throw them away without putting them to further use. Environmental issues are used to impose further taxes without putting these taxes to a profitable use.

It is very simple in France, supermarkets don’t give out or sell polybags at all. You can however buy proper shopping bags (much more substantial than our supermarkets’ “bags for life”). We are still using 3 Carrefour bags that we brought home 5 years ago. Of course it will never happen here because our Government will pussy foot around the issue for ever rather than taking action.

Jennie, Richmond says:
11 September 2012

With regards to the argument that people need plastic bags to line bins with – this is only because many councils these days insist that waste is bagged before being put in the dustbin. When I was a child, people just put the waste in the dustbin unbagged, and washed the bins out from time to time. The waste was emptied into a dustcart by tipping the bin upside down (as some carts now do automatically with wheely bins). If we are serious about the environment (and we need to be), we also need to have a debate about persuading councils to accept unbagged rubbish again.

It won;t change until they are either banned or charged for. My local aldi charges just 3p for a carrier and i would say 70-80% don’t buy them. 3p puts people off! We are a bunch of tight wads when you think about it 🙂

Personally I would like the same as what someone said they had in Australia.

Paper bags are no good as they cost about 5-10 times more to buy in than carriers.

steiner says:
20 September 2012

We find plastic bags very useful for many things being both light, strong and waterproof. The supermarket bags are also ideal for bin liners and if we didn’t have these we would have to buy them so for us the usage would remain broadly the same. They’re not single use.

We don’t have a car and often shop spontaneously, we often carry a rucksack each and maybe a stronger plastic bag after that we need extra. A charge or tax is annoying.

Encouraging people not to take more bags than they need should be sufficient. Introducing oxo-biodegradable plastics will take care of food plastics that end up as litter.

So we’re against a tax.

Cuger Brant says:
24 September 2012

More than 7 billion people are living on planet Earth and will be 10 billion very soon.
Atmospheric CO2 was stable at about 280 ppm for almost 10,000 years until 1750.
Circa 1912, atmospheric CO2 levels breached the 300 ppm threshold for the first time in at least 2.1 million years.
36.8 billion metric tonnes of fossil fuel derived C02 in atmosphere in 2010.
Atmospheric CO2 June 2012…. 395.77 ppm.
Atmospheric CO2 Projection for Year 2100…. 885 ppm.

If humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted, paleoclimate evidence and ongoing climate change suggest that CO2 will need to be reduced from its current 395 ppm to at most 350 ppm.
If the present overshoot of this target CO2 is not brief, there is a possibility of seeding irreversible catastrophic effects.

I am sorry to say your ‘feel good’ factor about getting rid of plastic carrier bags and saving the planet is utterly irrelevant, it will save nothing not even a single sea turtle.
It is motivated by manufacturers of other sorts of heavy duty bag which are even worse for the environment.
Example? google; fizz bags or eco bags etc etc…

As we run out of oil and coal we won’t be able to afford plastic bags and a whole lot more.

When are we going to face up to the need to control population growth, as China has done? Put a plastic bag over the head of anyone who mentions human rights because human rights won’t help if we destroy our planet.

We don’t accept plastic bags in the supermarket or anywhere else if we can help it. We take our own. We don’t need to find something to reuse them for. We don’t need to.

We separate our food waste into a newspaper lined food waste bin (and sometimes a wormery).

We rinse and recycle what plastic we buy (inadvertently as packaging). Hard plastic (except large items, flower pots and polystyrene are not recycled by our Council (not that they realise that there is more than one kind of polystyrene and I’ve always presumed they mean expanded polystyrene packaging). Plastic bags for bread and some other items are often recyclable in larger supermarkets (check the packaging). It often says so on the bag but doesn’t on the recycling bank in the store – still – years on!!

So with nothing messy in the bin we don’t need a bin liner.

We have a green box for other recycling – including clean foil (which in many areas if not collected kerbside can be put into can banks – ask your Council).

Waste paper goes into a waste paper basket – nothing else and we never put food into a bin anywhere other than the kitchen. That’s how it always used to be in the past. It is still a good system.

You can get more (if you need to but we don’t) into your bin if you don’t try and fill it with lots of little bags. You can just line your bin with a black sack and then tie it up and put it out when it is full.

The occasional single-use bag still gets into the house occasionally and will be reused somehow BUT they no longer cascade out of a drawer or cupboard when it is opened. Such freedom is a joy!

I don’t mind paying for a bag but I don’t agree paying for one if the company name is printed on it, hence I will in effect be paying to advertise their company therefore company bags with names on should be free. if they wish you to pay the bags should be plain no advertising name on it, that’s my view why should I pay to advertise a certain shop or brand.

You can turn the bags inside-out, as Em suggested earlier. I did that many years ago. The obvious solution is to take your own bags.

What upsets me is branded clothing. Even worse, there are people prepared to pay extra for it.

One unfortunate consequence of the introduction of the bag charge is that my local Tesco Extra has removed the container for recycling plastic bags. I have not used ordinary plastic bags for some time, but it was where I used to recycle the plastic wrapping from items received and the post and the as from sliced bread. The latter still say “recycle with plastic bags”. My local authority will only accept a very small range of plastic. Aside from stock-piling them, the only other option is to send them to landfill, which seem a hugely retrograde step. Had anyone in authority really thought through the consequences? It would seem not.

That’s a good point, Richard. Each year I receive information about what should be put in the blue (recycling) and black (general waste) bins, but there is never any mention about plastic bags. The only mention is that nothing in the recycling bin should be bagged.

It’s confusing staying with friends because different councils want different items in their recycling bins and boxes. We need some standardisation throughout the country.

I must admit we put flimsy cellophane and polythene waste in the green [general waste] bin. It would be good to know if it could be included in the waste for recycling which goes in the black bin where we are, especially since there seems to be so much more of it these days [cellophane wrapping around a sealed box of cheese biscuits is not required, surely] including a lot more with the material that comes in the post. I am all in favour of standardisation and truly wish our local authority would switch the bin colours to the more conventional arrangement of black for refuse and green for recycling. Some of their green bins are so dark they look like black bins which doesn’t help if non-conforming waste goes in them.

A range of recycling codes has been developed and it would not be difficult to learn the common ones and recognise them by appearance and what they are used for: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Recycling_codes

A sticker inside the lid of the recycling bin could be used to indicate what to put in and what should go in the general waste bin.

That’s a good idea but it just doesn’t happen. A few months ago our council started accepting glass bottles, foil-lined juice cartons, plastic food containers, and shreddings in the recycling bins but the instructions inside the lids still say NO to those items.

John, It’s amazing what one can do with old plastic bottles, and would you believe it, I have at last discovered what happened to all those teaspoons that went missing on April 1st. 🙂 Take a look @. Bored panda.com – 23 Creative Ways to Reuse Old Plastic Bottles.

………..and don’t miss the Xmas tree!

I think 3p would be a better price. I used them in my under sink bin. There are very few shops that sell packs to fit that will replace them. So I have to make a special journey by car now to buy 40 x 3p 16 litre bags of more or less the correct size. Bin bags are too big and not suitable for rectangular under the sink bins. I don’t think the council would appreciate rubbish eg food waste going straight in the outside bin.

Tony says:
10 January 2018

I bet the sales of bin bags have gone up since the introduction of charges on plastic bags have come in.
I now buy bin bags which I never used to buy in order to put my rubbish in.
So where is the saving on plastic waste

I find the never-ending supply of obscure charity collection bags more than sufficient for waste purposes and we haven’t used a bin bag for ages [other than the pedal bin liners].

I find charity bags useful for long-term storage. Unlike single-use bags they don’t seem to disintegrate after a year or two.

The obscure charity collectors probably have nothing to do with any charity except themselves as I found out when I once checked up on one.

I did some investigations once and could find no evidence that any worthwhile contribution was being made towards the stated objectives of a supposed cancer charity. Whatever they do with the goods they collect is all very well-concealed.

A recent upstart seems to be tugging at the heartstrings over the plight of injured fire-fighters; yes, they are brave and heroic, but they probably have some of the best in-service welfare and support arrangements in manual work today as they are all employed by public authorities. Perhaps the charity does useful work, so I won’t criticise it, but is it necessary?

Now that we have the smallest military establishment for over a century, and with few current engagements, there suddenly seems to be a rash of organisations cashing in on the public’s sympathies for the welfare needs of soldiers. Their plastic bags come in useful though but we could all live without them.