1.5 billion ‘bags for life’ add to growing plastic waste in the UK

UK supermarkets are producing more plastic waste despite promises to cut down, new research suggests, as sales of ‘bags for life’ soar to 1.5 billion.

A bag for life contains more plastic than a single-use carrier.

Retailers were responsible for more than 900,000 tons of plastic waste in 2018, according to a joint report from the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) and Greenpeace released Thursday.

Seven of the 10 largest supermarket chains reported a higher plastic packaging tonnage in 2019 compared to last year, although exact figures for this year have not been released.

Compared to 2018, this year the number of supposedly eco-friendly bags for life sold rose by about 25%, based on market share, the report states.

Campaigners said the rise showed that the durable bags are now being used by many as a replacement for single-use carrier bags.

‘Bags for life’ contain a lot more plastic than single-use carrier bags, and 1.5 billion were sold in 2019. This is equivalent to 22 bags each per man, woman and child.

Campaigners recommend that supermarkets increase the price of bags for life to 70 pence ($0.90). They point to the 90% reduction in bags for life sales in Ireland, where prices are set at 70 cents ($0.77).

However, in an ideal world bags for life would be removed completely, enforced by a government ban, said campaigners.

“It’s shocking to see that despite unprecedented awareness of the pollution crisis, the amount of single-use plastic used by the UK’s biggest supermarkets has actually increased in the past year,” said Juliet Phillips, EIA ocean campaigner.

“Our survey shows that 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 (its) root through systems change, not materials change — substituting one single-use material for another is not the solution.”

The report reveals that plastic use among suppliers is also to blame, and supermarkets have failed to make them reduce plastic packaging.

Tesco has led the way in this area, threatening to delist products for suppliers who fail to cut excessive plastic. Campaigners are urging other supermarkets to do the same.

Waitrose came top of the plastic use league table, reducing its footprint year-on-year, with Morrisons second.

Sainsbury’s came in third, a marked improvement over its tenth place showing in 2018, while Aldi and Asda were the bottom two this year.

Plastic waste is a global issue and various countries have taken action to reduce its impact.

Kenya made it illegal to use, manufacture and import plastic bags for commercial and household packaging in August 2017.

In March the European Parliament approved a law banning a wide range of single-use plastic items, such as straws, cotton buds and cutlery, by 2021.

The UK government followed suit in May, announcing plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds will be banned in England from April 2020.

In June, Canada announced many single-use plastic items will be banned by 2021, including bags, straws, cutlery and stirring sticks.

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