With a target of reducing plastic bag usage by 70 per cent by next spring, retailers are doing all they can to minimise their waste, but has the problem been exaggerated? Liz Morrell sorts fact from fiction

Plastic bags, once a retailer’s ally, have turned into their biggest enemy. In February last year, 21 high street and grocery retailers signed a voluntary agreement with the Government, entitled the WRAP Courtauld Commitment, to reduce plastic bag usage by 25 per cent by the end of this year. By this February, they had achieved a 14 per cent – or 1 billion bags – reduction, but a few months on the target was upped to 70 per cent by next spring – if retailers don’t manage it they will face penalties.

Most retailers are looking at how to reduce their bag usage. However, amid the furore, many claim that the real environmental impact of the humble carrier bag has been exaggerated. WRAP, the Waste & Resources Action Programme, a company that helps businesses and individuals recycle more, puts the problem into perspective. “Households waste 6.7 million tonnes of food each year and 5.9 million tonnes of packaging waste a year, compared with 100,000 tonnes of carrier bags,” says a spokeswoman.

Peter Woodall, spokesman for the Carrier Bag Consortium – which comprises manufacturers, wholesalers and distributors of carrier bags – says retailers have been forced to act without all the facts. “It’s hysteria that began with the green movement thinking that all plastic is bad, but the facts don’t bear out the fiction,” he says.

Woodall argues that the plastic bag can still be the retailer’s friend. “We already had a plan for dealing with carrier bags and it was called reduce, reuse and recycle. There is no problem with conventional carrier bags providing retailers encourage reduce, reuse and recycle,” he says.

Retailers are encouraging consumer reduction through a raft of initiatives. Last month, Marks & Spencer launched an in-store ad campaign to highlight the success of its 5p bag charge that was introduced nationwide in May, which has led to an 80 per cent – or 100 million bag – reduction in the number of plastic bags going to landfill. Tesco claims to have reduced its carrier bag use by 40 per cent compared with two years ago, with 2 billion carrier bags saved.

Reuse is easier to enforce, says Woodall. “70 to 80 per cent of shoppers are reusing their bags already – for school lunches, as wet gym bags or as bin liners,” he says. “I don’t think the Government properly accepts that, without the free supermarket bags, households would have to find an alternative.”

Recycling is harder to enforce, but is increasing in popularity. Many consumers don’t think bags can be recycled, but Woodall says that this belief has come about partly because local authorities are loath to collect them because they are measured on their performance by the weight of waste they collect.

In January, the number of bag recycling sites had risen from 1,940 to 2,771. Tesco introduced recycling points in stores in 2003, while Sainsbury’s was the first retailer to offer customers a standard carrier bag with a high content of recycled material in September 2006 – two years after it rolled out recycling collection points at its stores. Its bags have comprised 50 per cent recycled content since June.

M&S’s bags, developed in conjunction with Papier-Mettler, are now 100 per cent recycled from plastic waste collected from the retailer. “The recycled plastic bag is still the forerunner in terms of environmental friendliness,” says a Papier-Mettler spokeswoman.

An M&S spokeswoman says: “Our policy is fundamentally about reducing usage and our secondary aim is to use them in the most sustainable way and to encourage customers to recycle.”

Other retailers are choosing biodegradable options – Tesco has done so since 2003. Michael Stephen is chairman of Symphony Environmental, a company that produces an additive that can be added to carrier bags at the production stage to make them oxo-biodegradable. They will disappear altogether on land or in water, leaving no harmful residues after 18 months. Inditex introduced the additive into its bags this year.

Stephen says: “Many supermarkets have decided to go down the recycling route, but a recycled product is just as non-degradable as a non-recycled one. Recycling sounds like a good idea, but it’s not for post-consumer waste because it tends to be contaminated.”

However, Woodall is sceptical. “You are creating something with the deliberate aim of turning it to nothing when you can produce something you can sensibly reduce and reuse,” he says.

A lot of progress is being made, but the answer to this much-publicised problem is not quite in the bag yet.

Retailer initiatives

  • Introducing Bags for Life in stores

  • Charging for single-use plastic bags

  • Asking customers whether they need a bag at the till

  • Removing bags from the checkout area, so that customers have to ask for a bag

  • Increasing the recycled content in plastic bags

  • Providing facilities for consumers to recycle their bags at the front of the store

  • Loyalty card points schemes to reward bag reuse

  • Promoting Bags for Life and bag reuse in general through messages in publications/magazines, broadcasting tannoy messages, reminders on “Next customer” bars at checkouts and receipts

  • Recording bag use at store level to motivate employees and customers to reduce use

    Source: WRAP