Plastic carriers: Nasty old bags

Plastic carriers are among our biggest polluters, and take up to 1,000 years to biodegrade. Yet we could easily live without them - so why don't we? Clint Witchalls investigates
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The Independent Online

It is estimated that we use 10 billion plastic carrier bags in Britain each year. "And that's a conservative figure," says Richard Swannell, of the not-for-profit company WRAP (Waste and Resources Action Programme). "The figure could be as high as 17 billion."

Last week, WRAP launched a pilot project in Bristol and Edinburgh to try to educate people to reuse their plastic bags more often. A similar campaign in Australia led to a 25 per cent reduction in use, so Swannell has great hopes for Britain. And we certainly have a long way to go.

Yet, this is not a problem without solutions. Bangladesh, Taiwan and South Africa have banned the manufacture and use of plastic bags outright, as have some states in India. People who break the law are fined. Other countries, such as Australia, Germany and Ireland, have taken a softer approach. In Ireland, you have to pay 15 cents (10p) if you want a shopping bag. Since the scheme was introduced in 2002, there has been a 90 per cent drop in the use of plastic bags. The Emerald Isle is no longer coated in polythene. "You'd just feel stupid buying plastic bags, so no one does," an Irish friend tells me.

"In Germany, plastic bags are getting a lot rarer," says Sonja Klug, a native German. "In supermarkets you have to buy the sturdy reusable ones or the lovely linen bags." Sonja is shocked by the profligacy of British retailers. "I say about 20 times a week: 'No bag, please.' I find it maddening that people get a whole bag just to carry a sandwich over the road to the office."

Perhaps banning plastic bags is a bit drastic - after all, they are useful for picking up dog crap and they make great impromptu Wellington boots - but why don't supermarkets charge people for them? After all, a recent MORI poll showed that 63 per cent of British people would be in favour of paying 10p for plastic bags.

"I think it would be a shock to the system to suddenly take them away," said a Tesco spokesperson. I reminded her of the success they'd had doing just that in Ireland. "It's their strategy," she said. "But for us, it's something that our customers feel comfortable with and something that our customers like. Our approach is to educate them and offer them choices to reduce the number of carrier bags they use."

One gets a sense, however, that supermarkets are afraid of losing customers if they unilaterally adopt the strategy of charging for plastic carrier bags. I fear that it may be about profits, not choice. After all, if you get someone habituated to a substance - be it polythene or heroin - isn't it your responsibility to get the person off that substance? It would be unethical to say: "We introduced you to heroin, but now we're giving you a choice: rehab or more free heroin. The choice is yours."

Plastic bags are a huge litter problem. Although they only make up 1 per cent of the total litter stream, by weight, they are the most visible form of pollution. They ruin our parks and open spaces, flapping from trees and clinging to fences. They make up 50 per cent of the litter found on our coast, and they're responsible for the deaths of 100,000 marine mammals and a million birds each year. The bags that do make it to a landfill site take up to a thousand years to biodegrade, and once they do so, they leave behind toxins that enter the soil and, potentially, aquifers.

So why don't we go back to using paper bags? "The difference environmentally between paper and plastic bags is marginal," says Vicki Procko, of INCPEN (the Industry Council for Packaging and the Environment). Interestingly, Friends of the Earth concurs, saying: "Paper bags have less capacity for being reused than plastic ones and they require more energy and resources to manufacture and transport than plastic alternatives."

Biodegradable bags have been touted as the solution by some. Tesco's spokesperson informed me that all of its shopping bags will be biodegradable by the end of the year. These new bags will begin to degrade after just 60 days. No more unsightly bags flapping on overhead wires then. It sounds like the perfect solution but, again, INCPEN and Friends of the Earth are in agreement. "Biodegradable bags are made from polythene and starch," says Friends of the Earth. "When the bag is buried after being thrown away, the starch molecules in among the polythene are broken down by bacteria. The bag, therefore, disintegrates, but the polythene does not decompose. Some retailers use them to project a "green" image for their company."

INCPEN says that biodegradability is something that many people are in favour of without understanding the issues. "For instance, if biodegradable plastic bags become mixed with non-biodegradable plastics in a recycling scheme, they could wreck the recycling process and result in the whole lot being wasted," says Procko. "And a current drive is to divert biodegradable waste from landfill - why introduce more biodegradable materials?"

Procko gives me a quote from the book The Consumer's Guide to Effective Environmental Choices: "Too many people drive their Land-Rovers to the grocery store and think that 'plastic or paper' is a meaningful choice." She believes that it's not plastic bags that are the problem, "it's the anti-social behaviour of the people who discard them thoughtlessly". Which is all the more reason WRAP needs to succeed with its project. It's all too easy to throw plastic bags away, especially if your council, like mine, doesn't allow them in the recycle bin. But they're still good for many more shopping trips. "Just put it where you'll remember it - maybe in the boot of your car, or in your work bag -- so that every time you go out shopping, you've got it with you," says Swannell. Suitably chastised by INCPEN and inspired by WRAP, I make a mental note to do just that.

What the supermarkets are doing about our addiction to the carrier


Sainsbury's says that it wants to offer a range of opportunities for customers not to take a free plastic carrier bag. Along with the heavy-duty, reusable "Super-Shopper" bags, more recent initiatives include the introduction of "Smart Boxes" made from recycled plastics as an alternative to the old-fashioned carrier. Sainsbury's also plans to introduce compostable plastic bags and packaging, which are already being used for the store's organic range and can be thrown directly into a compost bin.


Tesco describes its approach to the problems caused by free plastic bags as three-pronged. It provides recycling points at most stores, as well as selling the reusable "Bag for Life" at all of its checkouts. The most recent initiative is Tesco's use of biodegradable plastic for its free carrier bags, which, it says, start to degrade within 60 days.


With this month's "Big Recycle Week" and four new £40m recycling centres for reprocessing carriers into black bin bags, Asda's approach to the plastic bag problem focuses mainly on the simplicity and accessibility of its recycling points. However, it also says that it is actively looking at new, innovative packaging solutions so that less rubbish ends up in household bins.


Waitrose was the first UK retailer to provide its customers with reusable, long-life carrier bags. It estimates that it has saved 54 million free carrier bags from being used. Focusing largely on promoting the use of alternatives to the old-fashioned free carrier bags, Waitrose is now offering fabric cool bags to customers using the new Quick-Check self-service scanners. The store says that it is also piloting biodegradable packaging in its organic range of pre-packed fruit and veg.


Morrisons says: "We encourage the reuse of all carrier bags and this message is reinforced by the slogan 'Please reuse this bag and help protect the environment', which is written on all of them." Currently, Morrisons supplies plastic waste bins wherever possible and also says that it is committed to delivering absolute reductions in plastic waste by March 2010 by increasing its use of recycled and recyclable plastic.


In 2002, Co-op was the first supermarket to use 100 per cent degradable carrier bags, as well as the first fully degradable bread bag last year. The bags take three years to fully degrade, leaving only carbon dioxide, water and a small amount of mineralisation compatible with soil. Its entire pre-packaged produce range is now in degradable bags, and Co-op will also be using the bags for its fruit, vegetable and salads.