Bags for life: Or are they?

7 May 2021

The carrier bag charge of 5p has resulted in a significant reduction in bag use. Carrier bags are no longer dished out like sweets and more of us own reusable bags and use the same bags over and over for our regular shops. And, the blight of littered carrier bags seems to have fallen, from the looks of my local neighborhood anyway. But sales of so-called ‘bags for life’ appear to be on the increase with many people treating them like disposable bags, and citizens are confused by what the right thing to do is with the variety of options on offer. Should we click thumbs up to paper or biodegradable bags rather than standard plastic? What is the best solution when it comes to the environment?

Since a minimum charge of 5p for plastic carrier bags was introduced there’s been a drop in usage by more than 90%. Our research shows that the number of people saying they buy bags at the till has halved. This can only be good news and interestingly, the motivation for this reduction is not always financial, for most people it’s about doing ‘their bit’ for the environment.

However, according to Greenpeace 1.5 billion ‘bags for life’ were distributed in 2019, an increase of nearly 5% from 2018. That’s nearly 57 bags ‘for life’ per household every year. So, are we all living multiple lives and shopping more?

Around a quarter of us admit to buying bags at the till, with 13% doing this often or always. Statistics show  you’re much more likely to buy a bag if you are aged 18-34 and if you have kids at home, and the main reason for doing that is because you’ve forgotten your reusable bags that (almost) all of us now own. It’s interesting to me that it’s people that fit this demographic, as they are also less likely statistically to get it right when it comes to recycling.

But perhaps the tide is turning. According to the last WRAP survey it is this demographic where recycling at home has increased the most. I feel sure that the 10p charge will have an impact, particularly as it’s not just about the doubling of the charge but about the extension to all shops, which will inevitably raise awareness and make people think twice.

Few would argue that there are too many plastic bags being purchased. So, what’s the solution?

Many members of the UK Plastics Pact are already taking action. Co-op have ditched thin polythene bags in favour of compostable bags so that those with food waste recycling collections can use them as a caddy liner. Morrisons recently announced that they would no longer sell plastic bags and have replaced them with higher priced heavy-duty reusable and recyclable paper. Others have focused on increasing the minimum price beyond the governments’ 10p. Whatever the strategy, it’s apparent that the supermarkets are trying to encourage their shoppers to adopt more sustainable options. The Co-op have called for transparent reporting on bags and WRAP whole-heartedly agrees. We all need to better understand the impacts of these different strategies.

When we look at what the best thing is for the environment, there is a clear winner. We need to remember our bags. Every time. Whatever type they may be. If we use it once and throw it away, that is the worst possible action for the planet.

We all need to unite behind a clear message that reusing a bag is The action to take. I can’t put my hand in my coat pocket or bag without finding a face mask at the moment, and I bet you can’t either. Just as we’ve adopted this habit for our health, I would urge everyone to try to get in the habit of carrying a carrier bag for the health of the planet.

That is how we truly ensure we have a bag for life.

WRAP findings on carrier bag usage

Dr Mark Roberts, Lead Analyst WRAP

This new research by WRAP provides some comparisons to research undertaken in 2012 ahead of the implementation of the 5p levy on single use carrier bags, and highlights how far things have come.

  • One in four of us now purchase thin carrier bags from the till – down from over one in two before the charge.
  • What’s more, over half of us (54%) say that we take fewer bags because of the charge with an overwhelming majority (94%) now owning at least one re-useable bag for life.

There are a few things that we can all do, and through our collective action make a huge difference:

  • Whilst nine in ten of us own a re-usable bag for life, almost one in three admit to having bags at home that they rarely use. So, search your cupboards, garages, and cars for bags for life and let’s make sure we are using them.
  • Of those that do not regularly use bags for life the most cited reason is ‘forgetting to take bags from home’. We all need to try to adopt new habits to ensure we remember our bags as much as we remember our wallets, keys and list when we go shopping – they are essential too. Keep a bag or two in the car and a fold-away bag in your main bag/pocket.   
  • No matter what material our carrier bags are made out we can dispose of them sustainably too. If it’s a bag for life you can return it to store and swap it for a new one (they’ll recycle the old one for you).  Thin carrier bags can be recycled at most supermarkets, along with other plastic bags and wrapping. Paper bags can be recycled at home. Compostable bags can be used to line your food caddy if you have a food waste collection.

WRAP is calling on retailers to facilitate and encourage new and more consistent behaviours:

  • With one in five citizens struggling to establish routines, what nudges and incentives might help and encourage shoppers to keep their current bags for life in use, for example could loyalty points be given for reuse?
  • Citizens are aware that they can exchange bags for life, but few take up the option so make it clear and encourage the return of bags for life to store, giving clear guidance around how customers can exchange their worn out bags for life for new ones.
  • Most carrier bags, whatever they are made off, are disposed of at home in the recycling or general rubbish. 23% of paper carrier bags are disposed of in the general waste when they could be recycled, 37% of single-use carrier bags are being disposed of in the household recycling where they may not be accepted locally, and over one in three fabric/durable plastic bags for life are disposed of in the household recycling where they may not be accepted locally. This poses potential missed capture and contamination issues.  So, whatever the carrier bags are made of, provide clear guidance on the carrier bags themselves, on how and where to dispose of them correctly.
Plastic carrier bags - a consumer perspective infographic
Plastic carrier bags - a consumer perspective infographic