Around 29 million tonnes of household waste is generated in the UK every year, of which 4.9 million tonnes is packaging and 7.2 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?
Activity by UK governments
From October 2011 all retailers in Wales have applied a 5p 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.
From April 2013, the Department of the Environment Northern Ireland proposes introducing a phased approach to charging for single-use carrier bags, starting with a 5p levy. The proceeds raised will go to the Treasury. A consultation period is in progress, closing 9 July 2012.
In June 2012, the Scottish Government announced a three-month consultation period on phasing in a single-use carrier bag charge of 5p. The money raised would support charitable causes.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) encourages retailers to take responsibility and cut down on the number of single-use carrier bags they hand out, but believes that the ability to take action also lies with consumers who can decline to accept them in favour of re-usable alternatives.
Defra is currenlty monitoring the results of the charging scheme in Wales and the outcome of the Scottish consultation on a charge.
Most grocery retailers throughout the UK have a number of approaches aimed to reduce the number of carrier bags. 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.
- 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 consumers can 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 that 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 always put the worn-out plastic bags in supermarket recycling points, as they are collected specifically for specialist recycling away from other waste streams.
If you are shopping online and receive a supermarket delivery, why not give the bags back to the driver who will return them to the supermarket.
Consumers should look for suitable re-usable bags and make sure that they are 'fit for purpose' - they should be 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.