Is the use of plastic carrier bags on the rise again?


Figures released by WRAP (Waste and Resources Action Programme) show that the number of single use plastic carrier bags issued by British supermarkets appears to be on the rise again. According to the report, just under 8 billion bags were used in 2011, an increase of 5.4% on the previous year.

The government asked WRAP to start gathering and analysing data on the use of carrier bags in 2006, when over 12.1 billion single use bags were used. The 2011 figure therefore still represents an impressive fall of 35% in that period.

Interestingly, when you break the figures down by the individual countries making up the UK, you find that the number of these bags issued in Wales in 2011 fell by 22%. A 5p charge for new bags was introduced by the Welsh government, a move apparently supported by 70% of people in the principality. Early figures suggest the move has led to some retail sectors issuing up to 96% fewer single use bags than before.


Change in shopping habits

The British Retail Consortium believes that the overall rise has come about because of changing shopping patterns caused by the recession. With less disposable income available, people are making more small shopping trips rather than one big weekly shop, and tending to use the car less, thus reducing the chance of having ‘bags for life’ to hand.

The BRC’s Head of Environment, while recognising the symbolic nature of the plastic carrier bag in the campaign against waste and pollution, emphasised that it still represented only a small fraction of household waste and that retailers were meanwhile making progress on areas with a far bigger impact on the environment.

The WRAP report also highlights the increase in recycled material being used in both single and multi-use carrier bags. The amount of virgin polymer used in all plastic carrier bags has fallen by 51% since 2006, although 2011 did see an 11% increase on the 2010 figure.


Reduce, reuse, recycle

It can only be hoped that the recent rise represents a mere blip in the general downward trend of recent years. The increased availability of compostable and biodegradable carrier bags means that the long-term environmental damage of throwing bags away isn’t what it used to be, but it is still significant and there is much we can do to make the most out of each plastic bag we make.

Reduce: No one believes there will ever be no such thing as a plastic bag again, but there are various ways we can reduce the amount we give away! Offer alternatives, such as ‘bags for life’ or even paper carrier bags, which biodegrade much quicker than their plastic counterparts. Or why not give rewards to customers who reuse bags rather than take new ones?

Reuse: Perhaps the biggest crime is to throw away a plastic carrier bag the second you’ve taken the shopping out! Every bag can be used again and if you’re going to throw them away, use them as bin bags. Every bag reused means one new bag less needs to be made!

Recycle: More and more supermarkets are providing recycling points where you can take plastic bags whose useful life is over. Even making bags out of recycled material has a carbon footprint, but that footprint is considerably less than starting from scratch each time!

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Rick Stanford

Rick has been a salesman in the packaging supplies business for more than thirty years. Now semi-retired, he divides his time between tending his allotment in north Devon, getting depressed at the continuing travails of his home-town football club Macclesfield Town, and sharing his considerable experience and knowledge with the readers of the Davpack blog. Davpack

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