Carrier bags - reducing their use

Around 28 million tonnes of household waste is generated in the UK every year, of which 4.9 million tonnes is packaging and 7.0 million tonnes is food waste. Carrier bags represent less than 1% of household waste but they are considered by many to be a symbol of a ‘throwaway society’ and contribute to visible litter.

What steps are being taken to reduce bag use?

UK governments

Since October 2011 all retailers in Wales have applied a five pence charge for every new single-use carrier bag issued to consumers. The money raised is collected by the retailer to support good causes, particularly environmental projects, in Wales. Further information is available.

A levy was introduced on single-use carrier bags in Northern Ireland in April 2013. Retailers now charge at least five pence per single-use carrier bag supplied to their customers. The revenue goes to the Department of the Environment (DOE). 

By October 2014, the Scottish Government will introduce regulations that will require Scottish retailers to charge a minimum of five pence for every single-use carrier bag they issue.  

In October 2015 new legislation was introduced requiring large shops in England to charge 5p for all single-use plastic carrier bags. The retailers will have to donate the proceeds of the scheme to good causes but can choose which causes to support. They will also need to report to Defra what they do with the money from the charge.

Grocery retailers

Most grocery retailers throughout the UK have introduced a number of approaches to reduce the number of carrier bags and their environmental impact. These include:

  • Encouraging customers to use fewer bags through promoting and incentivising the use of re-usable bags and bags for life (B4L);
  • Training staff to ask customers if they need a bag;
  • Charging for 'single-use' plastic carrier bags; 
  • Increasing the collection of used bags for recycling at store;
  • Increasing the recycled material content of the bags; and
  • Making bags lighter where possible and therefore using less material.

These initiatives are good examples of the simple, practical measures that can be taken to help reduce bag use.

What can consumers do?

Consumers are increasingly aware that they can make positive choices to help the environment in the way that they shop.  Everyone who cuts back on the number of bags they use makes a contribution to saving resources and reducing waste.

Think bag – reduce the amount of carrier bags that are used by re-using them as many times as possible. Re-use bags and place the worn-out plastic bags in supermarket recycling points, as they are collected specifically for specialist plastic film recycling away from other waste streams.  

If you are shopping online and receive a supermarket delivery, give the bags back to the driver afterwards or when you make your next online purchase.

Consumers should look for suitable re-usable bags and make sure that they are 'fit for purpose' – strong, durable and ideally be made from recycled material. Also, you could keep a small foldaway bag with you for those unexpected or impulse purchases.