What should be done about plastic bags?

Plastic bags

The European Commission is to publish proposals in the spring designed to reduce the number of plastic bags used in Europe each year. Most of the 15,000 people who took part in a public consultation favoured an outright ban - but what are the options?

Every year 800,000 tonnes of so-called single-use plastic bags are used in the European Union - the average EU citizen used 191 of them in 2010, the Commission says, and only 6% were recycled.

More than four billion bags are thrown away each year.

"The impact of this plastic waste can be seen littering our landscape, threatening our wildlife and accumulating as 'plastic soup' in the Pacific Ocean, which may cover more than 15,000,000 sq km," says Environment Commissioner Janez Potocnik.

So what are the options for addressing the problem and where have they been tried?

Complete ban

Last year Italy became the first country in Europe to ban non-biodegradable plastic bags.

A number of countries have banned very thin plastic bags, including China, South Africa, Kenya, Uganda and Bangladesh - in Bangladesh's case, it was found that the bags had clogged up the drainage system, exacerbating deadly floods.

European consultation (2011)

  • 15,538 replies, 96.9% of which came from members of the public
  • More than 70% of respondents were in favour of an EU ban on plastic bags
  • 76% were in favour of a labelling system to indicate biodegradable bags
  • Only 12% thought existing requirements for biodegradability were sufficient

Source: European Commission

A handful of countries have banned plastic bags altogether, including Rwanda and Somalia, while some like Tanzania have banned ultra-thin bags.

The United Arab Emirates, concerned about pollution and the risk to camels and other animals, has banned all plastic bags except oxo-biodegradables.

British government minister Lord Henley said last year he was "not happy" the use of carrier bags in the UK had risen by 5% in 2010, after four years of decline. He suggested the UK might introduce a ban.

Friends of the Earth are in favour of this as long as alternatives are adequately highlighted, people and shopkeepers have enough time to prepare, and it does not have a "disproportionate impact on the poor".

In the US, local laws muddy the picture. "The city of Los Angeles doesn't have a ban but Los Angeles county does," says Ted Duboise, who runs the Plastic Bag Ban Report website. "There is a lot of confusion. You can go to one supermarket and they will have bags and a few miles down the road they're banned."

Bag tax

The Republic of Ireland introduced a charge of 15 euro cents (12p, 20 US cents) per bag in March 2002, which led to a 95% reduction in plastic bag litter. Within a year, 90% of shoppers were using long-life bags.

The levy was raised to 22 cents in 2007, after evidence showed that the number of plastic bags used annually had risen from 21 per person immediately after the ban to 30 (compared with 328 previously).

By this stage, the government had raised 75m euros (£62m, $99m) from the levy, which was put into an Environment Fund and used to reduce waste or research new ways of recycling.

Belgium, Germany, Spain, Norway and the Netherlands are among the countries following Ireland's lead.

Wales introduced a levy of 5p (six euro cents, eight US cents) per bag last year and Northern Ireland will do so next year. Wales also threatens shops that continue to give out bags free of charge with a £5,000 fine.

Jennie Romer, a US lawyer and founder of plasticbaglaws.org, says: "Ireland's plastic bag levy is still widely regarded as the most successful charge on plastic bags, in part because the amount of the levy is relatively high and is adjusted based on per capita plastic bag usage."

Long-life bags

If shoppers stop using plastic bags, they must start using other kinds of bags, but there is no perfect solution. Stronger, heavier bags, whether made of fabric or plastic, have a bigger environmental impact than standard supermarket shopping bags.

Last year Britain's Environment Agency published a Life Cycle Assessment of Supermarket Carrier Bags, which concluded that long-life bags have to be reused a number of times if they are to be environmentally a better option than standard plastic carrier bags.

For instance, if a plastic bag is used just once, then a paper bag must be used three times to compensate for the larger amount of carbon used in manufacturing and transporting it, a plastic "bag for life" must be used four times, and a cotton bag must be used 131 times.

If a plastic bag is reused, of course, then its carbon footprint per use decreases further - and the number of times the alternatives have to be used to match this low footprint is multiplied.

The study took into account the fact that long-life bags are bigger than plastic carrier bags, and that fewer are needed for a weekly shop.

Whatever type of bag is used, the key to reducing the impact is to reuse it as many times as possible either for shopping or as a bin liner.

In 2010, a study by the University of Arizona also claimed reusable grocery bags could be a "breeding ground for dangerous food-borne bacteria and pose a serious risk to public health" - though it has to be noted that this work was funded by the American Chemical Council, which includes several plastics manufacturers.

A scientist at the US-based Consumers Union criticised the study, saying that the same amount of bacteria could be found in an average bag of salad.

Biodegradable bags

The European Commission is considering introducing better ways of labelling biodegradable and compostable bags.

Compostable bags only biodegrade in industrial composting plants. Biodegradable bags will biodegrade in the natural environment, but come in different types:

  • Those made of corn will biodegrade in a landfill environment, but while doing so they produce methane, a powerful global warming gas
  • Another type of bag is oxo-biodegradable, which will biodegrade if exposed to air or water, but not in landfill

Symphony, a British company which manufactures oxo-biodegradable bags, claims it can be "programmed" to biodegrade within six to 18 months.

Symphony's chairman, former Conservative MP Michael Stephen, told the BBC: "There is a huge patch of plastic roughly the size of Texas swirling about in the north Pacific. If it had been oxo-biodegradable it would have disappeared by now."

Mr Stephen said: "Ireland and Wales missed an opportunity to make all the remaining plastic oxo-biodegradable."

But Ms Romer, of plasticbaglaws.org, says: "The term biodegradable is often misleading, which prompted a bill recently signed into law in California prohibiting the sale of most plastic products labelled as 'biodegradable' unless the claim includes a disclaimer."

Mr Stephen agrees: "Suppliers need to be clear as to what kind of biodegradable plastic they are offering and what it will, and will not, do. It would for example be misleading to describe most compostible plastics as biodegradable."

Paper bags

Paper bags have been the traditional shopping bag of choice in the US, but while these biodegrade in landfill, the UK Environment Agency study points out that they have a higher carbon footprint than standard plastic carrier bags.

It also says the available evidence suggests paper bags are not generally reused, either as bin liners - a purpose for which they are not well suited - or for other purposes.

Mr Duboise of the Plastic Bag Ban Report website says pressure from the "powerful wood pulp industry" is one reason paper bags are used in the US.

Over the years, supermarkets drifted towards plastic bags, he says. But, he adds: "A lot of supermarkets are going back to paper bags even though the environmental people say it's just as bad as plastic."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 462.

    @ 454.

    "Boro Jonesy (453) - you're Jeremy Clarkson! Aren't you?"

    God I hope not, I might as well give up now if I look like him! He's a berk, but I bet he'd have the same opinions on the great plastic bag debate

  • Comment number 461.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 460.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 459.

    could turn them into Airfix plastic kits,might give a lot of folk something constructive to do on the coming long hot summer nights.

  • rate this

    Comment number 458.

    Lobby your supermarket NOW to offer recycled brown paper bags.

  • Comment number 457.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 456.

    Why the questions?
    Why pretend there's an option?

    If the government sense an opportunity, there'll be a tax, no matter how good or sensible the alternatives. Tax and endless increases in them are the only option they're ever interested in.

  • rate this

    Comment number 455.

    Nothing should be done. It is a minor irrelevant issue in environmental terms.

    Discussing it just distracts from the real issues, like a planet with finite resources with 7 billion people and rising.

  • rate this

    Comment number 454.

    Boro Jonesy (453) - you're Jeremy Clarkson! Aren't you?

  • rate this

    Comment number 453.

    @445. Diana Vreeland

    Try putting a carrier bag in a pair of tight jeans, it's impossible. I'm not wearing daggy clothes just to save the planet, I'd never pull!

    And I don't want to carry bags around all day long, I just want to be given one when I need it, like I always have been. No problem with the eco warriors doing their pointless thing, just don't force it on me!

  • rate this

    Comment number 452.

    @ 448.matt in the uk

    "...the planet will simply incorporate plastic into a new paradigm: the earth plus plastic. The earth doesn’t share our prejudice toward plastic."

    How far in the sand is your head? Are you really not aware of the impact these discarded bags have on wildlife? What about the visual aspect of this litter?

    Why should we simply put up with it?!

  • rate this

    Comment number 451.

    matt in the uk - haven't i said enough about this through the years? (shakes head...) :-p

  • rate this

    Comment number 450.

    What about rubbish plastic bags? For 6 years, I have done without plastic bags to carry stuff, but I still didn't find a way to stop using rubbish plastic bags.

  • rate this

    Comment number 449.

    The problem isn't just plastic bags but those polystyrene containers they put burgers in.

    I took a boat trip down the River Avon at Bath recently and there they were - bobbing down the river, a flotilla of burnt yellow, half-drowned, cast-offs from the drunken night before. Their passage heralded by the fluttering plastic bags stuck to the brambles on the bank.

    What a lovely sight.

  • rate this

    Comment number 448.

    If it’s true that plastic is not degradable, well, the planet will simply incorporate plastic into a new paradigm: the earth plus plastic. The earth doesn’t share our prejudice toward plastic. Plastic came out of the earth. The earth probably sees plastic as just another one of its children.

  • rate this

    Comment number 447.

    in mid wales we already had a low takeup rate for single use carrier bags after several years of campaigning by FoE group/Lles (Llanidloes energy solutions) i have noticed enormous numbers of people using 'real' bags - they don't have to take up much space - and you can make your own! We had teams of people making them from old curtains etc to sell (complete with low energy bulb) a few years ago

  • rate this

    Comment number 446.

    I would not say the term 'single-use' plastic bag as I use mine again & again. The biodegrading bags are an interesting idea, but will they stop the problems of litter? In the Pacific if they biodegrade or 'oxo-degrade' won't they still be present in some form & isn't it encouraging litter? I would think the best option to be responsibility & proper collection in recycle bins as with all materials

  • rate this

    Comment number 445.

    @391 Boro Jonesy
    Your masculine dilemma can be solved.
    If you have plastic bags at home you can scrunch one up and put it in your jacket or jeans pocket and then take it shopping. No pockets? Oh dear. Maybe get a few plastic bags and put some inside another bag and.....carry the plastic bags!

  • rate this

    Comment number 444.

    Whatever . . What I don't want to see is the checkout girl looking at me like I'm a child killer just because I ask for another carrier bag.

  • rate this

    Comment number 443.

    @440. Diana Vreeland

    I hate being made to feel guilty for taking a bag, even worse the checkout staff who flick a single bag at you in disgust when you have a trolley full of goods.

    In my local shop, I got 4 cans of lager, a bottle of wine, milk, bread, oranges and a copy of the Sun. The lad asked "you don't need a bag do you?"

    I said what do you expect me to do, juggle them all the way home?


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