‘Bags for life’ prove to be pop­u­lar in Britain — much too pop­u­lar

Cam­paign de­signed to re­duce plas­tic use back­fires spec­tac­u­larly

The Peterborough Examiner - - CANADA & WORLD - ELIAN PELTIER

LON­DON — When the Bri­tish gov­ern­ment in­tro­duced a 5-pence levy on plas­tic bags four years ago, it en­cour­aged shop­pers to help re­duce en­vi­ron­men­tal dam­age by bring­ing their own re­us­able “bags for life.”

But the bags — which are stur­dier than tra­di­tional sin­gle-use plas­tic bags — have in­stead be­come a sig­nif­i­cant fac­tor in the coun­try’s largest su­per­mar­kets’ “plas­tic foot­print,” ac­cord­ing to a re­port pub­lished on Thurs­day by Green­peace and Britain’s En­vi­ron­ment In­ves­ti­ga­tion Agency.

This year, the 10 com­pa­nies rep­re­sent­ing most of Britain’s gro­cery re­tail mar­ket have sold more than 1.5 bil­lion “bags for life,” the re­port found — which amounts to 54 bags per house­hold. That was on top of the 959 mil­lion “bags for life” sold in the coun­try’s main su­per­mar­kets last year.

“We have re­placed one prob­lem with an­other,” said Fiona Ni­cholls, a Green­peace U.K. cam­paigner who is one of the re­port’s au­thors. “Bags for life have be­come bags for a week.”

One com­pany alone, the frozen-food chain Ice­land, re­ported a ten­fold in­crease in sales of “bags for life” this year, the re­port found — 34 mil­lion bags, up from 3.5 mil­lion last year.

In pro­mot­ing the stur­dier bags in 2015, the gov­ern­ment said, “Typically, you pay for these once and can re­turn them for a free re­place­ment when they wear out.”

Yet four years later, the cam­paign­ers’ re­port, ti­tled “Check­ing Out on Plas­tic II,” found that the “bags for life” sold by the largest su­per­mar­kets this year amounted to nearly 50,000 tons of plas­tic, in ad­di­tion to more than 3,330 tons of plas­tic from their sin­gle-use bags this year.

Over­all, to­tal plas­tic pack­ag­ing in Britain’s main su­per­mar­kets amounted to 995,000 tons last year, the re­port found, al­though some su­per­mar­kets were ex­per­i­ment­ing with sell­ing more loose pro­duce rather than re­ly­ing largely on fruit and veg­eta­bles wrapped in plas­tic.

After its in­tro­duc­tion, the plas­tic bag levy was cred­ited with a more than 80 per cent re­duc­tion in the num­ber of bags given out by the largest re­tail­ers. The ex­tent to which in­creased “bag for life” sales have coun­tered this ef­fect was un­clear.

Shop­pers in Britain have widely de­bated plas­tic pol­lu­tion for years, with pub­lic aware­ness sig­nif­i­cantly in­creas­ing after mil­lions watched the hit BBC doc­u­men­tary se­ries “Blue Planet II” in 2017.

Its renowned nar­ra­tor, David At­ten­bor­ough, later urged peo­ple to re­duce their plas­tic foot­print, as gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials said they had been “haunted” by the doc­u­men­tary’s images of the dam­age that plas­tic has done to the world’s oceans.

Nearly nine mil­lion tons of plas­tic end up in the ocean ev­ery year, ac­cord­ing to Ocean Con­ser­vancy, a U.S.-based non­profit en­vi­ron­men­tal group.

In 2018, the coun­try’s largest su­per­mar­ket chains, in­clud­ing Tesco, Sains­bury’s and Waitrose, joined an in­dus­try­wide ini­tia­tive to “tackle the scourge of plas­tic waste.”

The ini­tia­tive, known as U.K. Plas­tics Pact, in­cluded a pledge to re­place tra­di­tional plas­tic pack­ag­ing with re­us­able, re­cy­clable or com­postable ma­te­ria. Cam­paign groups say that such a move is un­likely to re­duce the com­pa­nies’ plas­tic foot­print.

Yet de­spite the Bri­tish pub­lic’s in­creased knowl­edge of en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues around plas­tic, Ni­cholls said that su­per­mar­kets and re­tail com­pa­nies were per­form­ing poorly in less­en­ing their plas­tic foot­print.

“After all this pub­lic aware­ness, we’d ex­pect plas­tic con­sump­tion to drop in su­per­mar­kets, but it’s ac­tu­ally in­creas­ing,” she said.

To en­cour­age shop­pers to re­use bags, the re­port urges Bri­tish su­per­mar­kets to raise the price of “bags for life” — which cur­rently sell for 20 pence (26 cents) in Sains­bury’s — to at least 70 pence, “or ide­ally to re­move them al­to­gether.”

Sales of “bags for life” fell 90 per cent in neigh­bour­ing Ire­land when su­per­mar­kets sig­nif­i­cantly raised the price of the bags, ac­cord­ing to the re­port.

That kind of nudge aims to raise the like­li­hood that peo­ple will take their own bags when vis­it­ing a su­per­mar­ket.

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