Greenpeace EIA report: supermarket bags for life sales reach 1.5bn

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Supermarkets are being urged to increase charges on plastic ‘bags for life’ or ban them altogether after it emerged sales increased to 1.5bn in 2018, and households used 54 per year.

Retailers surveyed by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) and Greenpeace reported sales of thicker plastic bags increased 30% from the eight supermarkets that provided year-on-year figures. Bags for life contain three times more plastic than single-use bags, meaning their production requires more raw materials like fossil fuels, and they pose a greater risk to the environment because they are more durable.

Campaigners are calling for – at a minimum – charges on plastic bags for life to be raised to at least 70p, to replicate the Republic of Ireland’s policy where a 70c charge has led to a 90% reduction in use. EIA and Greenpeace support a move towards a complete ban on plastic bags for life.

It comes after EIA and Greenpeace’s survey, Checking Out on Plastics II: Breakthroughs and Backtracking from Supermarkets, revealed plastic from the top 10 UK supermarkets rose to 903,000 tonnes last year. Seven out of 10 supermarkets reported an increase in their plastic footprint. 

EIA ocean campaigner Juliet Phillips said: “Plastic bags are the tip of the iceberg of the UK’s waste problem. Failure to tackle this totally pointless plastic does not reflect well on the sincerity of supermarket and Government pledges to get tough on plastic pollution. With kitchen cupboards up and down the country already stuffed full with carriers, it’s time to clamp down on so-called ‘bags for ‘life’ altogether.”

Fiona Nicholls, Ocean Plastics campaigner for Greenpeace UK, said: “Bags for life are increasingly being treated as bags for a week – fuelling rather than fixing our plastics crisis. You wouldn’t throw out your rucksack after a week, so we shouldn’t chuck out our shopping bags.

 “Despite pledging plastic reductions, supermarkets are pumping out more plastic than ever – and so-called bags for life are a symptom of that. Retailers must raise the charge to 70p and, if that fails, move towards a complete ban on plastic bags for life.”

The 5p bag charge had been celebrated for driving down single-use bags by 83%. But the survey suggests that customers are simply buying and throwing away bags for life instead, which contain more plastic. 

In efforts to cut down plastic bags, retailers must avoid swaps to throwaway paper bags, which drive deforestation and contribute to our climate emergency. Instead, supermarkets must sell suitably priced, genuinely reusable bags to encourage shoppers to use and reuse the bags they already have.

The survey found that UK households go through 54 bags for life each year on average. 

The worst performers on bags for life were Iceland, Tesco and Aldi. Iceland reported a near tenfold increase in bag for life sales, from 3.5m in 2017 to 34m last year. Tesco and Aldi both saw jumps in bags for life sales of nearly two-thirds, to 713m and 84.6m respectively. 

Morrisons has increased the price of plastic ‘bags for life’ to 30p in 31 stores, leading to a 37.7% reduction in their sales. It attributes half of the reduction to a move into paper bag sales, which campaigners condemn as a false solution. The other half was down to customers reusing bags.