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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 o