PLASTIC FREE HOME: Have plastic bag sales really fallen?

Plastic bag
David Lamont
David Lamont

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 fill-time employees and it may soon be set to double to 10p.

In total, 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.

The new Environment Secretary Theresa Villiers welcomed and lavished praise on the Government’s report.

While the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) suggested that the average shopper in England now buys just 10 bags annually from a supermarket, down from 140 before the 5p charge was brought in.

As highlighted in an excellent piece of journalism by 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 new norm.

Channel 4 News asked supermarkets for more information. Tesco reportedly said that it was not legally obliged to share anything, while Sainsbury’s cited commercial sensitivity. Collectively Waitrose, Co-Op and M&S sold 58.8 million bags for life in the past year, a mere 2% annual decrease.

It was pointed out that two years ago, all supermarkets did in fact publish similar data, which triggered unwanted negative publicity, hence their reticence now.

It goes without saying that bags for life are much stronger than conventional plastic carrier bags. Because they of course contain more plastic.

Findings place the ‘life’ of an average carrier bag (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 that.

Talking to Metro, The Marine Conservation Association’s Dr Laura Foster previously criticised brands like Sainsbury’s for only offering bags for life (having removed 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 charging much more to alter behaviours.

A 2018 Times article 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.”

So, sadly there is still a long way.

We recommend using any bags you already have (most of us have plenty) to death. When replacing them, consider reusable bags made from materials like Bamboo, Juco, Hemp and Jute. All are better for our planet in the longer term than plastic, paper or cotton bags.

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