What the Government has said
Upon confirming that the cost of a carrier bag in England will double to 10p from April 2020, the Government also proudly announced that sales of carrier bags have fallen by 95% since the introduction of the ‘plastic bag tax’ in 2015.
The compulsory plastic bag charge currently only applies to retailers with more than 250 full-time employees but from next year the new charge will apply to all shops.
226 million ‘single use’ plastic carrier bags were sold by larger retailers in the past year. The total number sold (when all retailers are included) may be several times that.
Is the Government’s claim true?
An excellent piece of journalism by Channel 4 News last year highlighted that the Government’s figures only relate to ‘single use’ plastic bags and not so-called ‘bags for life’, which have of course become the new normal in most supermarkets.
In 2019, Channel 4 News 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||Declined to provide data|
|Sainsbury’s||Declined to provide data|
|Asda||Declined to provide data|
|Morrison’s||Declined to provide data|
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 2018-19, a mere 2% annual decrease. It pointed out that two years prior, all supermarkets did in fact publish similar data, which triggered unwanted negative publicity, hence their reticence at the time of asking.
In 2019, the Environmental Investigations Agency (EIA) showed 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 lower sales.
The problem with bags for life
It goes without saying that bags for life are stronger than conventional plastic carrier bags. This is, of course, because they contain far 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.
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.
A 2018 Times article, ‘Scourge of more than 1bn plastic bags for life’, suggested that the average UK household was using 44 bags for life in a year and argued that: “many customers treat them as single-use carriers, discarding them and buying new ones on their next shopping trip.”
The MD of Iceland, Richard Walker, was even quoted last year saying: “We are selling less of them [single use carrier bags] 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’ item, nearly one in three bags sold in 2019 was a bag for life, with no evidence of a fall in their use, while the available evidence suggested that “the introduction of bags for life might have actually increased the overall amount of plastic being used.”
The Government’s figures seemingly do not provide a full or accurate picture of things (sound familiar?). 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 far 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.
So, what is the solution? We would suggest that most of us have more than enough bags at home, whatever they are made from (jute, juco, cotton, plastic, or indeed reusable or cardboard boxes…), to last for many years. We should be using them, to death, and shop should stop readily supplying bags of any kind. That is how we bring about real and lasting change and stop this issue becoming yet another political football.
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