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."


More on This Story

In today's Magazine

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites



This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 242.

    233. Tsunami of Logic
    Perhaps we could recycle plastic bags for use in catching dolphins- their meat is considered a delicacy throughout much of Asia
    A forty mile wide monofilament nylon net works better.

    Incidentally which countries? Even the Japanese don't actually like Whale meat. Most of their 'research catches' end up in school dinners and pet food.

  • rate this

    Comment number 241.

    I always use 'Bags for Life' & regularly repair any splits with tape. I only ask for replacements when there is more tape than bag & probably get at least 40 uses from each.

    The bigger problem seems to be with the unnecessary plastic packaging on items that go in my shopping bags, since that currently cannot be recycled.

    e.g. Excess packaging is often used to dress up 'Higher Quality Goods'.

  • rate this

    Comment number 240.

    "I think the ‘issue’ of plastic bags is as much about social manufacturing as industrial resources, it is being used (as so many things nowadays) as a mechanism to define our collective consciousness in the ‘battle’ against normlessness"

    Thanks , Dai. I think I will use a bit more petrol and drive the pretty way home after reading that one

  • Comment number 239.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 238.

    I think the ‘issue’ of plastic bags is as much about social manufacturing as industrial resources, it is being used (as so many things nowadays) as a mechanism to define our collective consciousness in the ‘battle’ against normlessness.

    Surely, progress, would come in a system that promotes & ensures a glocal provision of the ability to carry provisions.

  • rate this

    Comment number 237.

    Our tesco has started putting out their waste boxes for use, and gives clubcard points for using them as if you'd brought your own bag.

    The only issue I have with plastic bags is the number that seem to escape their owners and end up tangled up in hedges or trees

  • Comment number 236.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 235.

    @ 214. Mike Logan

    And your retort makes sense!

    Please don't bother replying.

  • rate this

    Comment number 234.

    I think it is important that we realise that the use of so many plastic bags is problematic and wasteful. We need to be conscious of what we're doing to our planet. I do want to point out that usually when you reuse a plastic bag, you only do it only once, especially if you're using it as a liner for trash, but if the bags can be recycled, why aren't we doing that?

  • rate this

    Comment number 233.

    Perhaps we could recycle plastic bags for use in catching dolphins- their meat is considered a delicacy throughout much of Asia.

  • rate this

    Comment number 232.

    While this debate is rightly looking at the wasteful end use of plastic - bags, bottles, packaging etc., the missing link in this debate is the waste of oil derivatives in the production of all plastics.

    Chemical engineers/industrial chemists created plastic and it can be useful. Sadly, the industry is now so huge, it's impossible to see anywhere on our planet unaffected by plastic pollution.

  • rate this

    Comment number 231.

    We also recycle our carrier bags as bin liners and would have to purchase liners if these were not available. Can these bags not be made out of a biodegradable plastic material so that they break down in land fill.
    Some plastic packaging carries the recycle logo, but our council will not accept it in the recycle bin - only plastic bottles (without the tops) + glass, paper etc.

  • rate this

    Comment number 230.

    The article is a little misleading in that, once they get their shopping home, most people use plastic bags from shops for other purposes, so those are bags of more than "1 use". Can't see why they all can't be biodegradable by law though. Something else that would help would be if empty packaging boxes were available to take from the shop floor the way they used to be. Few stores still do this.

  • rate this

    Comment number 229.

    Agree with atonewell. We buy our kitchen bins and other indoor bins to size with the normal sainsbury / tesco plastic bag. It saves us on buying separate bin liners, and works very well. In fact I think supermarkets should provide bags for dual purpose use: sized as bin liners. I am sure that would reduce a lot of plastic, if everyone just reused their bags as bin liners

  • rate this

    Comment number 228.

    Montgomery County, Maryland was using a recycle system, which seemed to work, but the County Council discovered the bag tax. No more recycling.

  • rate this

    Comment number 227.

    tsunami of logic, when you burn your plastic bags, please do us all a favor and inhale all the fumes!

  • rate this

    Comment number 226.

    I always like it when I buy quite a few items from a shop and the assistant asks grudgingly" would you like a bag"? I feel like replying " of course not, I will balance them on my head and stroll home in the manner of a Masai lady carrying water pots back to her village" Just wish I could do a decent Basil Fawlty voice

  • rate this

    Comment number 225.

    We use carrier bags as bin liners. If there was a ban on thin plastic carrier bags, we would need to purchase & use far thicker bin liners.

    Neither situation is great and as our council is able to recycle more and more, then less and less needs to be bagged to go into the landfill bin. At which point, we'll be happy using long life bags... until then, leave our bags alone!

  • rate this

    Comment number 224.

    Can we please put a stop to the idea that a bag for life that is made of thicker plastic than the conventional plastic carrier is better for the environment - it is not.
    Can we also PLEASE request that when free bags become unavailable, that the shop advertise the change rather than wait until a person is stuck at the till with limited funds? Ta.
    Hemp fabric is definitely the greenest option btw

  • rate this

    Comment number 223.

    #219 Charity commission number or company house number? Most of the bags I get wanting 'unwanted clothes for Eastern Europe' are companies not charities. Its not made overly clear but the number being a company number is the clue. Its quite legal too. I can't remember the last time I got a bag from a charity. If its a company bag I throw it away. It costs them money everytime I don't return it!


Page 12 of 24



  • Kim Jong-ilKorean kidnap

    The film stars abducted by North Korea and forced to make movies

  • TabletFeeling flat

    Are tablets losing their appeal?

  • scarlett Johansson7 days quiz

    Did someone try to impersonate Scarlett on the red carpet?

  • Woman reading on subwayCover shots Watch

    The disappearing books of the New York city subway

  • llamasLlama drama

    Two unlikely fugitives go on the run in Arizona

Try our new site and tell us what you think. Learn more
Take me there

Copyright © 2015 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.