Recycling supermarket bags

According to the Guardian, the UK used 8.5 billion “single-use plastic bags” last year, a record figure in an ever-increasing waste crisis.

Having trialled the pay-for-bag scheme with the Celts, who’ve responded either with Celtic thrift or an environmental epiphany to change behaviour, we English are now subject to the same financial penalties for frittering single-use bags.

WRAP (who famously got most of the Midlands agencies to tender for a campaign to change human behaviour on recycling) reckon England is to blame for most of the 8.5b bags, but this is from large shops only.

Clearly juggling a sliced loaf, a pint of milk, a 4-pack and a bottle of wine from the local convenience store needs a bag, so free bags will always be proffered and accepted and even “double bagged” given the bag quality is inadequate for precious liquids.

So changing behaviour in supermarkets is the focus. But will a 5p tariff make a difference? With food prices rocketing and the hopes of keeping a weekly family shop in double figures long gone, I’m guessing not. A 30p tariff on a £130 food bill is not a deterrent.    What deters is the fact the damn things split, fall over in the boot of the car, and are unfit for purpose.

“Bags for life” on the other hand have none of these faults. Yesterday I bought one from Lidl for 59p.  Sturdy and  well-made, I stored it with the many other BFLs at home. I am not alone.  Apparently the average household stores and then scraps loads of these bags too.

Plain old human forgetfulness is at the root of this problem, and will remain so whilst we shop in cars. The wheelie bag foot-shopper is unlikely to walk out of the door without their wheelie symbol of civic virtue, but the driver is another creature.

We’ve all been here: the produce speedily loaded onto the conveyer belt, the queue of shoppers pressing behind, then we remember we left the bags for life in the car at the other side of the car park …..doh.  

The news that Asda, Iceland, Morrisons and Waitrose will put the proceeds of the 5p carrier bag charge into a single fund to fight dementia might give the harassed bag-less shopper a bit of consolation but it won’t help the bag-mountain problem, admirable though the gesture is.

Human frailty needs help from the product designers.  One radical thought: can’t we follow the lead of the bio degradable food waste bags and mass produce shopping bags that also degrade?  The scale of the problem won’t be tackled by tariffs alone, and probably not by endless campaigns.


Simon Flynn