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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?


This problem needs to be dealt with by legislation since most people don’t care enough about environmental issues to make much effort.

If we had left it up to personal choice, we would probably not have introduced smoke control zones and catalytic converters. Respiratory disease would have been significantly higher and the only conceivable benefit would be a lower population.

As mentioned in the introduction, plastic bags are not the biggest environmental issue, but it would not be difficult to cut use dramatically if there was a charge. How hard is it to take your own bags to the supermarket? Some people have done this for decades.

I would suggest that we get rid of the flimsy free bags that are not strong enough to re-use and sell heavier duty bags for 10 or 20p.

Paper bags are commonly suggested as an alternative to disposable plastic bags but it does not take much investigation to realise that they are not a solution.


Our regional supermarket chain do push the 10p “Bag for Life” and most of the locals use them, however holidaymakers who make up a significant proportion of the customers tend not to come equipped with a supply of bags.

I think there has been a culture change as far as reusing plastic bags is concerned and more of the single use bags are being used several times often ending up as bin liners or being recycled.
It would be interesting to know whether sales of bin liners are also rising ?

Gerard Phelan says:
22 August 2012

It would not be hard for the Tabloids to describe a bag fee as a ‘TAX on Shopping’ and make a lot of fuss. I take a number of ‘Bags for Life’ when I go on planned shopping trips and would not mind paying a small charge when I forget, but then I have a good income. Perhaps there are many around me living on the fringes of poverty for whom even such a small charge would be a burden and who rely on today’s free bags as their source of bin liners and nappy disposal bags.


I don’t mind paying extra for a bag, but that’s because I generally do bring my own bags, and I have a big stash of canvas bags that I use for shopping.

My main bugbear is that there are so many situations in which shops give you bags despite the fact that you clearly don’t need them. I’ve probably moaned about this before but when I go to get my lunch from the supermarket across the road from work (which consists of, at the most, three small items that I’m clearly going to eat straight away) it is always automatically put in a bag. Every single time I have to say to the shop assistant “I don’t need a bag, thanks, I’ll put them in my shoulder bag” and am met with bemused looks.

Likewise if I do a big online shop, I’m asked to tick a box at the end of the transaction saying ‘I don’t need my shopping in bags’ – well, of *course* I don’t need my shopping in bags – it’s being delivered to my door! Unless I’m on a top-floor flat, and there’s nowhere for the van to park outside, I can’t see any reason why I would need bags. It’s really annoying.


I’ve also had checkout operators start packing plastic bags for me, but I just take the items out and put them in my bag, or let them pack my bags. If anything is sticky or wet I’m happy to have it put in a small plastic bag.

In city centre stores I say that I don’t need a bag. Usually this is accepted but sometimes I have been told that I must use the shop’s bag because of the store’s policy. I say that I am not prepared to, for environmental reasons. I have had some assistants look uneasy but no-one has forced me to use a bag.


Absolutely agree Nikki, and this is another reason which I am so anti-self-service checkouts. In all the shops I’ve been to, except M&S, using disposable bags on the self-service check out is mandatory because the machine won’t work if you place your own bag in it (it counts this as “Unexpected item in bagging area”). M&S have made an attempt at making the system work (which shows that the technology can do it if the retailer wishes to bother to set it up) but it isn’t very good and often calls an assistant to verify that you really have entered the correct number of bags to be paid for (it’s probably programmed to distrust any customer who claims to have used no bags!).

Anyway, self-service tills aside, I quite agree that the issue of shops insisting that you have one of their bags is a problem and it’s unforgivable these days.


The Tesco self-service tills now have a button that allows you to use your own bags, provided they are all put on the packing bench at the start.

You will still have to call the staff to sort out other problems, of course.


@Wavechange. I don’t shop in tesco, ever, but I’m very pleased to hear that they have done this with their SS checkouts and it goes to show that it cane be done if the retailer wishes. A good mark for Tesco for once 🙂