Britain's biggest supermarket chains will come under fire this week for handing out tens of millions more carrier bags than last year, derailing attempts to reduce the environmental impact from billions of disposable bags.
New figures will show that the industry missed its target of halving the number of plastic bags used in 2006 for the second consecutive year. The setback will propel carrier bags back on to the green agenda, despite hopes of moving the environmental debate on to tackle bigger issues, such as food waste and water usage.
Campaigners criticised the increase and said it was time for the Government to step in. Mike Webster at Waste Watch said: "The rise suggests retailers should be given an extra nudge from legislation." The Welsh Assembly plans to introduce a 7p charge for carrier bags in the principality from next spring in an attempt to cut the number of bags dumped in landfill.
Retailers defended the figures, which were compiled in May, pointing out that they failed to account for the industry's growth. Paul Kelly, Asda's corporate affairs director, said: "At a total level, the increase is not surprising because more stores are opening. The picture would probably look better on a like-for-like basis."
Four years ago, seven of the UK's leading supermarket chains, including Tesco, Sainsbury's and Asda, pledged to slash the number of disposable carrier bags used by 50 per cent by 2009. Last year the industry just missed its target, cutting the number by 48 per cent to about 5.6 billion for the whole year.
The latest report, which the Government's waste watchdog Wrap will release on Wednesday, is expected to say that the overall trend has improved, despite the increase in May. Last year, the sector handed out 450 million single-use carrier bags in May 2009; the total number for May 2010 is likely to exceed 500 million. Experts were unable to explain why supermarkets handed out more bags that month. Paul Bettison, former chairman of the Local Government Association's environment board, said: "I am really surprised. I can't see retailers pushing up plastic bag use specifically, and I can't see why this is."
It is unclear which supermarket chains are to blame for the increase. All of the retailers contacted by The Independent on Sunday yesterday claimed to have cut their carrier bag usage in line with Wrap's original target, although only two chains – Marks & Spencer and Waitrose – disclosed the total number of bags used. M&S, which has charged its food customers 5p for every bag handed out since May 2008, said it used 240 million bags in the year to April 2010, including 89 million in its food halls, an 80 per cent drop since 2006. Waitrose gave customers 21 per cent fewer bags than the previous 12 months at 199 million in the year to May 2010.
Tesco would say only that an average customer "now uses 55 per cent fewer bags than in August 2006". The claim is likely to trigger fresh accusations that the chain in fact missed the target because it is understood to have adjusted the figure to account for growth in sales, giving a different picture from the one presented by Wrap.
Although retailers will argue that the grocery sector faces far bigger environmental challenges, plastic bags remain a contentious issue because they are so visible. Mr Webster said: "Carrier bags are not massive in waste terms but they are totemic." Becky Slater from Friends of the Earth said: "Plastic bags are one symbol of a disposable culture. It's good for people to start thinking about whether they need to use one." But she added that they were "just the tip of the iceberg" when it came to reducing the industry's impact on the environment.
Mike Barry, Marks & Spencer's sustainable development manager, said: "We never believed carrier bags were the be-all and end-all with regard to environmental impact. But it's one issue where consumers can have a direct impact."
Wrap will use the report to stress that the industry and consumers can reduce waste further by throwing away less food and using less energy. The watchdog is working on a new campaign to urge householders to use their fridges and freezers more effectively. It wants new guidelines for on-pack freezing instructions to spell out that consumers can freeze chilled and fresh food at any time before the use-by date and not just on the day of purchase. A recent survey found that 30 per cent of consumers would not freeze a product such as a ready meal that had been in the fridge for a few days, even if the pack were unopened.
Wrap also wants retailers to pay more attention to cutting the amount of water used throughout their supply chain and to decrease the carbon footprint of their shops. Jack Cunningham, Sainsbury's environmental affairs manager, said switching from polluting HFC fridges to new CO2-cooled fridges would have a "far bigger impact" than anything it could do with plastic bags, cutting its carbon emissions by one-third.
Additional reporting by Pavan Amara
Sam Diamond: The only good bag is a re-usable bag
Plastic bags are loathed by environmentalists and resented by traditionalists who yearn for the days of ha'penny paper bags of sweets.
Yet, in many ways, paper bags are much worse for the environment. Paper bag production emits more than three times the amount of greenhouse gases that plastic bag manufacture does, according to a Scottish government report. An estimated 14 million trees a year are cut down to make them. The result is a very sizeable carbon footprint. Even when they're made from recycled paper, the process still uses 91 per cent more energy than plastic recycling. In addition, paper bags are anywhere between six and 10 times heavier than lightweight plastic bags and, as such, cost more to transport. And if not recycled, they take up more room in a landfill site.
But while they may have advantages over paper, plastic bags are not in any way good for the planet. They take hundreds of years to decompose. Thousands of animals, wild and domestic, die every year when they ingest or are suffocated by them. And the newer, biodegradable plastic bags still take more than two centuries to decompose and are not suitable for recycling with other plastics or composting. The rate of recycling for plastic bags is also incredibly low – just 1 per cent worldwide. The rest end up in landfills or as litter.
The most environmentally friendly option remains...the reusable bag.