What the government has said
The government recently announced that sales of plastic bags in the UK by large retailers had dropped by 90% since the introduction of the ‘plastic bag tax’ in 2015.
‘Large retailers’ being key as the data used only accounted for bag sales at Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s, Morrison’s, Waitrose, M&S and The Co-Op.
The compulsory plastic bag charge currently only applies to retailers with more than 250 full-time employees and it may soon be set to double to 10p.
1.1 billion single use plastic carrier bags were sold by large UK retailers in the past year. The total number sold (including by smaller retailers) is thought to be several times that.
Environment Secretary, Theresa Villiers, responded to the announcement by saying: “Our comprehensive action to slash plastic waste and leave our environment in a better state continues to deliver results, with our 5p charge reducing plastic bag sales by 90% in the big supermarkets.”
And The Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) suggested that the average shopper in England now buys just ten bags annually from the country’s main supermarkets, down from 140 before the original 5p charge was brought in.
Is the government’s claim true?
According to an excellent piece of journalism from Martin Williams and Channel 4 News, the government’s figures only relate to ‘single use’ plastic bags and not so-called ‘bags for life’, which have of course become the norm) in most supermarkets.
Channel 4 News’ Fact Check asked the leading supermarkets mentioned above for more comprehensive numbers, to better understand the progress that had been made. This is the response they received:
Tesco Refused to provide data
Sainsbury’s Refused to provide data
Asda Awaiting a response
Morrison’s Awaiting a response
Tesco reportedly said that it was not legally obliged to share this information, while Sainsbury’s cited commercial sensitivity.
Channel 4 News found that collectively Waitrose, Co-Op and M&S sold 58.8 million bags for life in the past year, a mere 2% annual decrease.
It points out that two years ago, all supermarkets did in fact publish similar data, which triggered unwanted negative publicity, hence their reticence now.
The Environmental Investigations Agency (EIA) charity found that Tesco were the worst offender, having sold 430 million bags for life, 40% more than Sainsbury’s figure of 269 million, with the other supermarkets reporting much lower sales.
The problem with bags for life
It goes without saying that bags for life are much stronger than conventional plastic carrier bags. This is, of course, because they contain more plastic.
Findings place the ‘life’ of an average carrier bag (be it single use or reusable) at somewhere between 10 and 20 minutes. Before they are then discarded, and potentially headed for landfill, or worse the ocean.
Research has suggested that a bag for life needs to be used at least 12 times before it can hope to be better for our planet than its ‘single use’ cousin. Sadly most do not achieve close to that.
Talking to Metro, The Marine Conservation Association’s Dr Laura Foster has previously criticised brands like Sainsbury’s for only offering bags for life (they did away with single use bags entirely), because: “people are using them effectively as single use bags” and they contain much more plastic. Dr Foster believes that retailers should be incentivising customers to bring their bags back by charging much more for them – upwards of 60p.
Last month, Asda became the latest UK supermarket to eradicate ‘single use’ bags, while increasing the price of a plastic bag for life to 15p. Seemingly not enough to make a real difference, only to make more money.
Morrison’s now charges 20p for its plastic bags for life (again, not enough), with the others holding tight at 10p.
A 2018 Times article, ‘Scourge of more than 1bn plastic bags for life’, suggested that the average UK household uses 44 bags for life in a year and said: “many customers treat them as single-use carriers, discarding them and buying new ones on their next shopping trip.”
The head of Iceland, Richard Walker, was even quoted as saying: “We are selling less of them but it’s not yet less enough that it’s compensated in terms of the extra weight that they are for the fewer amount of bags that we are selling. So therefore I haven’t yet reduced the total amount of plastic weight, even though I have eliminated 5p carrier bags.” Pretty damning.
According to Channel 4 News, nearly one in three bags sold are a bag for life, with no evidence of a fall in their use, and there is evidence available that suggests “the introduction of bags for life might have actually increased the overall amount of plastic being used.”
The government’s figures do not provide a full or accurate picture of things. The use of ‘single use’ plastic carrier bags does indeed continue to fall, helped no doubt by the fact that a growing number of supermarkets do not provide them as an option.
They have largely been replaced by bags for life, yet these contain more plastic and are heavier and bulkier to ship, resulting in more packaging and a higher amount of fossil fuels being consumed. And their usage isn’t falling very much if at all.
Plastic bags for life need to be used at least a dozen times to be a better alternative environmentally, yet the lifespan of the average carrier bag in the UK is under 20 minutes meaning that this will rarely be the case.
Also, the government’s figures relate only to the seven supermarkets highlighted above. The true picture, when looking at the retail sector as a whole, is much harder to gauge and will likely tell a less compelling story.
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