It was hailed as a big win for the environment when supermarkets announced they were ditching plastic shopping bags. They introduced the ‘bag for life’, a sturdy carrier that could be used many times and avoid dumping billions of the fiimsy alternatives in landfill sites.
The reality has proved somewhat different – and shocking – with evidence that consumers are not only failing to re-use them, but are buying more and therefore adding to the plastic waste mountain.
Conservationists have warned that while sales of plastic carrier bags have dropped significantly, sales of ‘bags for life’ which contain far more plastic, rose to 1.5 billion in 2018.
The UK’s fourth-largest supermarket chain Morrisons is now launching a trial in eight stores – including Paisley – with US-style paper bags. If successful, the company will introduce them to all of its 494 stores, saving 90 million plastic bags, the equivalent of 3,510 tonnes of plastic per year.
The proposed Morrisons paper bag can carry up to 16kg, has handles, can carry a similar amount of items as its plastic counterpart and is easily recyclable, the food retailer added.
David Potts, Morrisons’ chief executive, said: “We believe customers are ready to stop using plastic carrier bags as they want to reduce the amount of plastic they have in their lives and keep it out of the environment.
“We know that many are taking reusable bags back to store and, if they forget these, we have paper bags that are tough, convenient and a reuseable alternative.”
But while being welcomed by environmental campaigners , the paper bags are produced using four times more energy and water than plastic carriers. They use more toxic chemicals and add to deforestation.
A 2006 study by the Environment Agency found that paper bags needed to be reused at least three times to make them more environmentally friendly than plastic bags.
The Danish Government also found that plastic shopping bags had the least environmental impact when taking into account the effects of manufacturing on climate change, ozone depletion, water use, air pollution and human toxicity.
Marine conservationists say other factors should be taken into account, such as littering and the damaging effect of plastic on marine life.
At least the supermarkets have acknowledged the problem and are leading attempts to tackle it.
Sainsbury’s is removing plastic bags for loose fruit, vegetables and bakery items. Tesco will stop using plastic bags to deliver online groceries following a successful trial last year, saving nearly 2,000 tonnes of plastic annually.
Governments have also joined the move to reduce plastic with recent figures showing the number of single-use plastic bags distributed by the big supermarkets falling by as much as 95% since the 5p charge was introduced in 2015. Sainsbury’s now charges 20p.
‘The Government shouldn’t congratulate itself too much until this hard work is done’
Data from the Department for the Environment shows the main retailers sold 226 million single-use bags in the past financial year, 322 million fewer than in 2018/19. This is a 59% drop, with the average shopper buying four bags compared to 10 last year and 140 in 2014
George Eustice, environment secretary, said: “It is so encouraging to see in such a short space of time the huge difference our plastic carrier bag charge has had in reducing the amount of plastic we use in our everyday lives.
“We have all seen first-hand the devastating impact that plastic bags have on the environment, littering our beautiful countryside and threatening the world’s marine life.
“I am committed to driving this progress further and I hope this continues to inspire similar action across the globe.”
But campaigners believe there is much more that can be done – starting with a further clampdown on bags for life. Sam Chetan Welsh, political campaigner at Greenpeace, said: “To deter people from using ‘bags for life’ like throwaways, the Government should increase the cost of bags for life, which successfully led to decreased sales in the Republic of Ireland – or ideally should ban them.”
Welsh called for reductions in plastic packaging across every aisle of the supermarket as well as at check-outs: “Whilst today’s figures are a step in the right direction, the Government shouldn’t congratulate itself too much until this hard work is done.”
Tom Fyans, campaigns and a policy director at CPRE, the countryside charity, said: “As one of the organisations that long campaigned for a carrier bag charge to be introduced, we are pleased to see it having the desired effect.
“We can’t stop there. Our throwaway culture persists, with the litter newcomers of gloves and face masks adding to the waste that blights the countryside and harms wildlife.”