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 82.

    I find your set of carbon footprint calculation slides misleading -- what percentage of bags is actually re-used three times? I think that, like "Rwanda, Somalia and Tanzania", we should ban all plastic bags.

  • rate this

    Comment number 81.

    Businesses would use more recycled plastic if there was a way to get it back to virgin plastic strength. Plastic is like sugar cookie dough the more you work it the softer it gets. If a company needs a really strong component - they use 100% virgin plastic. If it can be softer they mix in regrinds from bad production, item web/wastage etc.

  • rate this

    Comment number 80.

    I was in Halfords one day and spotted the staff throwing away hundreds of these bags which were brand new. I asked why and was told they had a phone number on them which was no longer in use. I got the young man to give me as many as I could carry and we are still using them as rubbish bags at Brownies 2 years on.

  • rate this

    Comment number 79.

    Make us pay 25p for plastic bags and I guarantee two things will happen: 1) People will moan and complain bitterly about it for a couple of months and 2) They will eventually begin to use reusable bags. I only do a shop once a month and use 20-25 bags. I'd certainly think twice about paying an extra £5 or so on top of my food bill but I'd still rather pay for food than bags...

  • rate this

    Comment number 78.

    I've always thought that the plastic bags issue was relatively trivial to the packaging used in the shopping actually being carried. Of course, any avoidable use of plastic is to be discouraged (I like the idea of a minimum charge of say 20p). I once weighed the packaging in my shopping relative to the plastic bags I (deliberately) used , and found that it weighed over 100x more.

  • rate this

    Comment number 77.

    I will use bags as I need to, regardless of the cost. I don't fly anywhere (no passport, through choice) or run a gas-guzzler so until the rest of you can make a similar claim, stop telling me what I should do to save the planet. Once people think you can save the planet by not using a bag they beleive that their effort is made and hence do little else to reduce their impact.

  • rate this

    Comment number 76.

    What should be done about plastic bags? Stop making them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 75.

    Trader Joe's, a super market chain in California, sells its own woven sturdy plastic bags which are re-useable for 1 dollar. We bought a bunch, took them home to Holland and have been using them once or twice a week for two years. No sign of wear and tear, fits beautifully in our bike bags, perfect. How big can that footprint be? How difficult can the solution be, just do it.

  • Comment number 74.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 73.

    I've often forgot my reusable bags when shopping and thought nothing of it. Our children will pay the full price of our actions; the sea and environment is full of tiny plastic litters. I would welcome a full ban on single use plastic carrier bags, current over the top food packaging and washing synthetic clothes without an appropriate filter attached to the waste pipe of your machine.

  • rate this

    Comment number 72.

    "the shop cannot allow you to take away their unwanted boxes unless you can prove you have a waste disposal licence. That is how mad this law is!"

    My local supermarket has boxes available for people to use. I suggest its the shop policy, not the law that is dictating what can/cannot be made available.

  • rate this

    Comment number 71.

    I have used the same two fabric shopping bags for the past forty years. How does that compare to plastic with regard to carbon footprint, I wonder?

  • rate this

    Comment number 70.

    simple solution. Ban 'single-use' bags entirely and set a price limit on 'bags-for-life' When you go shopping, take your bags with you (is this really so hard), when you have an impulse buy, simply buy a new bag and add it to your collection. Many women carry a folded up BFL in their handbag.

  • rate this

    Comment number 69.

    Let's scrap supermarket self-checkouts.

    Not only will this increase employment, but also it seems likely to reduce the number of people using plastic bags just once: I see a lot more people using their own bags at staffed checkouts than I do at self-checkouts; where grabbing new bags seems to be the norm.

    Or is that just me?

  • rate this

    Comment number 68.

    In Ireland people have to pay for plastic bags, the tax is then frittered away by the government, however you see a fraction of the rubbish on the streets that you once did. Overall it's a good thing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 67.

    Its a no brainer, and it has been for ages. Ban plastic bags, its simple, really it is. Then perhaps we can move on to more pressing matters like how much pastic is used in packaging, toys, cars and electrical goods. We all know this, so why is there always a delay and debate as if there is something left to talk about, let alone disagree on? Stop pontificating.

  • rate this

    Comment number 66.

    @39- Argos catalogue bags make the best, reusable lunch carriers I can find. I have been bringing my lunch in the same bag for over a year now....

  • rate this

    Comment number 65.

    I find plastic bags make ideal containers for all those 'bags for life' I buy and keep forgetting to take out with me.

  • rate this

    Comment number 64.

    This is so obvious . Make it compulsory to charge for the bags AND tax the supermarkets on their use.

    To the Govt Dept: the main issue is not the carbon footprint, it is the issue of what we used to call LITTER. The bags just hang around in the streets and in the countryside for evermore.

  • rate this

    Comment number 63.

    This article overplays the carbon issue and underplays the affect on wildlife. 'Single-use' plastic bags do not degrade, they just break up into smaller bits of plastic which can be eaten by birds, fish and animals. This can lead to blockages of throat, stomach and intestines, resulting in death. The dead animal can then be eaten by another animal which also dies. These bags are serial killers.


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