'Bags for life' plan in UK to cut plastic waste backfires

Sturdier bags to replace single-use ones have led to increase in plastic footprint of supermarkets: Report

A woman with a reusable bag with a Union Jack design. The 10 firms making up most of Britain's grocery retailers sold over 1.5 billion "bags for life" this year.
A woman with a reusable bag with a Union Jack design. The 10 firms making up most of Britain's grocery retailers sold over 1.5 billion "bags for life" this year.PHOTO: NYTIMES

LONDON • When the British government introduced a five pence (eight Singapore cents) levy on plastic bags four years ago, it encouraged shoppers to help reduce environmental damage by bringing their own reusable "bags for life".

But the bags - which are sturdier than usual single-use plastic bags - have instead become a significant factor in the country's largest supermarkets' "plastic footprint", according to a report published on Thursday by Greenpeace and Britain's Environment Investigation Agency.

This year, the 10 firms representing most of Britain's grocery retail market have sold more than 1.5 billion "bags for life", the report found - amounting to 54 bags per household. That was on top of the 959 million "bags for life" sold in the country's main supermarkets last year.

"We have replaced one problem with another," said Greenpeace UK campaigner Fiona Nicholls, who is one of the report's authors.

"Bags for life have become bags for a week," she added.

One company alone, the frozen-food chain Iceland, reported a ten-fold rise in sales of "bags for life" this year, or 34 million bags, up from 3.5 million last year, according to the report.

In promoting the sturdier bags in 2015, the government said: "Typically, you pay for these once and can return them for a free replacement when they wear out."

Yet, four years on, the campaigners' report, titled Checking Out On Plastic II, found the "bags for life" sold by the largest supermarkets this year amounted to nearly 50,000 tonnes of plastic, on top of more than 3,330 tonnes of plastic from their single-use bags this year.

Overall, total plastic packaging in Britain's main supermarkets came to 995,000 tonnes last year, the report said, although some supermarkets were experimenting with selling more loose produce rather than relying largely on fruit and vegetables wrapped in plastic.


We have replaced one problem with another. Bags for life have become bags for a week.

MS FIONA NICHOLLS, a Greenpeace UK campaigner.

After its launch, the plastic bag levy was credited with a more than 80 per cent reduction in the number of bags given out by the largest retailers. The extent to which increased "bag for life" sales have countered this effect was unclear.

Shoppers in Britain have widely debated plastic pollution for years, with public awareness significantly increasing after millions watched the hit BBC documentary series Blue Planet II in 2017.

Its renowned narrator David Attenborough later urged people to reduce their plastic footprint, as government officials said they had been "haunted" by the documentary's images of the damage that plastic has done to the world's oceans.

Nearly 9 million tonnes of plastic end up in the ocean every year, according to Ocean Conservancy, a United States-based non-profit environmental group.


Last year, Britain's largest supermarket chains, including Tesco, Sainsbury's and Waitrose, joined an industry-wide initiative to "tackle the scourge of plastic waste".

The initiative - UK Plastics Pact - included a pledge to replace traditional plastic packaging with reusable, recyclable or compostable material, although campaign groups say that such a move is unlikely to reduce the companies' plastic footprint.

Yet, despite the British public's increased knowledge of environmental issues around plastic, Ms Nicholls said supermarkets and retail companies were performing poorly in reducing their plastic footprint.

"After all this public awareness, we'd expect plastic consumption to drop in supermarkets, but it's actually increasing," she said.

To encourage shoppers to reuse bags, the report urges supermarkets to raise the price of "bags for life" - each one now sells for 20 pence in Sainsbury's - to at least 70 pence, or "ideally to remove them altogether".

Sales of "bags for life" plunged 90 per cent in neighbouring Ireland when supermarkets significantly raised the price of the bags, the report said.

That kind of nudge aims to raise the likelihood that people will take their own bags when visiting a supermarket. Ms Nicholls said: "When we go shopping, we should remember our bags like we remember our phones."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 30, 2019, with the headline ''Bags for life' plan in UK to cut plastic waste backfires'. Subscribe