Campaigners are claiming that plastic ‘bags for life’ are driving up the plastic footprint of leading supermarkets, reports the Guardian.
The article continues by saying that Greenpeace and the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) both claim that increasing bag sales fly in the face of company pledges to reduce the amount of plastic used across retail businesses.
It is put forward that the number of ‘bags for life’ sold has increased 26% to 1.5bn units per year, or the equivalent of 54 bags per UK household.
This in turn has pushed the total amount of plastic waste produced by supermarkets up from the 2017 figure of 886,000 tonnes to 903,000 tonnes in 2018.
This has resulted in seven out of 10 of the top UK supermarkets increasing their plastic footprint, with only Waitrose, Tesco and Sainsbury’s achieving reductions in material usage.
Juliet Philips from the EIA said: “Grocery retailers need to tighten up targets to drive real reductions in single-use packaging and items. We need to address our throwaway culture at root through systems change, not materials change – substituting one single-use material for another is not the solution.”
There are a series of issues with this point of view.
Most readily apparent is that ‘bags for life’ are, by their very name, not single-use products. Far thicker than standard plastic bags, the substantial plastic film used to make the bags makes them ideal for multiple use.
Further, these bags promote the wider recycling of plastic shopping bags. As films are generally recycled by weight, the flimsy material used to make free plastic bags meant a far higher number of bags had to be collected to achieve a tonnage where recycling became economically feasible.
With the thicker material used in ‘bags for life’, the number needed for viable recycling is reduced, promoting interest in the business case.
Then there is the issue with alternative materials. According to industry statistics, it would take 10 trucks to move the equivalent number of paper bags as could be moved by one truck carrying plastic bags.
The reduced amount of transport helps to cut the overall carbon footprint of the product, which goes some considerable distance to off-setting any manufacturing impact of the plastic bags.
Perhaps most importantly in the longer term, the bags drive the volume of plastic being pushed into the recycled waste stream.
The price of recycled PP has been increasing across Europe as companies tap into the available product pool to help improve sustainability credentials. As such, any increase in the amount of recycled PP on the market should be viewed with positivity; lest we forget the benefits of the ‘circular economy’.
It appears that plastic bashers will not be content until every piece of plastic is eradicated from the planet. The fact that this ubiquitous material delivers myriad benefits – not limited to carrying your groceries home – is largely ignored in favour of strategy which looks to guilt consumers into changing behaviours.
If ‘bag for life’ sales are increasing despite the imposed cost, then it should serve as notice that they are needed. To be clear, while supermarkets are clearly guilty of over-packaging, this is not plastic for the sake of plastic.
Real life also shows how alternatives are proving a poor replacement – at risk of being branded a plastic apologist, I discovered the paper bag provided by Boots (the pharmacist offers no plastic bags) was not fit for purpose as the substandard grab handle gave way and the bag disgorged its contents onto the wet ground.