Plastic bags are not “single use”

A collection of jute and orange plastic bags in two pink plastic crates.

It was reported yesterday (Thursday) that since the tax on plastic bags was introduced under the Coalition government (where, you may recall, the Liberal Democrats got this introduced in return for supporting a Tory benefit cut) plastic use by supermarkets has gone up rather than down and that many of the reusable bags, often branded “bags for life” or similar, are in fact only being used once as were the old thin bags. An environmental group whose spokesman was interviewed on today’s You and Yours programme on Radio 4 called for a 70p charge to be introduced, a similar rate to that charged in the republic of Ireland. They also noted an increase in the sale of ready meals which also invariably come in plastic packaging. I can think of a few explanations for these trends; plastic use may well have increased by even more than is being suggested.

First, carrier bags never were really “single use”. Many people did reuse them for shopping or for carrying personal effects; they also got reused as bin bags, especially in cars and the like, and for the disposal of food-related waste, nappies and other waste that might make an environment smell. They also got used as temporary covers for things (e.g. bicycle saddles when covered with bird poo — or to protect them from the same). People now have to find new ways to dispose of these things, which means buying bin bags from the same supermarket that would previously have given them a branded carrier bag for free. No doubt some of the “bags for life” are also being used as makeshift bins and disposed of before they can be reused for shopping. Since carrier bags got expensive, some of us started using the clear plastic bags they supplied for loose vegetables for some of these purposes but some supermarkets have withdrawn these as well. Sainsbury’s asks customers to buy their special netting bags or just to bring our own, but continues to supply bulk vegetables in plastic packaging. I could, therefore, buy three courgettes in a plastic package and end up throwing two of them away because I don’t get through them that quickly, or just source them elsewhere, but it’s very convenient, profitable and ‘woke’ for Sainsbury’s.

I always doubted that banning carrier bags would greatly reduce plastic consumption or plastic-based pollution. People forget to bring their bags and have to buy new ones; many people were not in the habit of bringing their used bags with them. The latter was a serious environmental problem but much of the plastic in the oceans comes from fishing nets and from plastic beads used in cosmetics that is washed down drains; it was treated as if it followed that because sea life was being choked with discarded plastic, everyone had to stop using plastic everywhere and this principally meant plastic bags and straws. Yet, while shopping can be done with reusable bags made of other materials (jute is a favourite), plastic has other purposes and people will have to continue sourcing plastic, and usually paying for it. The netting bags that Sainsbury’s now expect us to buy for the loose veg is imported from China, which increases the food miles of vegetables grown in Britain or Europe considerably (assuming the plastic bags weren’t imported from there too).

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