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The plastic bag tax – hampered

I’m not a habitual plastic bag user. I normally bring my own bag or basket to the shops.

This morning, however, I ran out of the house to buy some milk and then, as happens, I decided to get two large bottles, a packet of cereal and some croissants. Unsurprisingly, I couldn’t manage to carry them home in my arms so, shortly after the new laws on carrier bags in English shops came in, I found myself having to buy a plastic bag.

I’ve no objection to the new 5p charge, I think it’s a good idea. Whether it saves on a lot of plastic going to landfill or not is a debatable issue. If the Irish example is anything to go by, many people who used to use their flimsy carrier bags as rubbish bags will now buy bin liners instead, so the actual amount of plastic film in the waste stream will not be radically reduced. But it should help to address our litter problem and prevent so many plastic bags ending up caught in hedges, ditches, lying on our beaches and polluting the sea.

When I handed over my 5p I was surprised to find that I wasn’t given the normal light plastic which makes a useful bin liner, but a much more substantial carrier bag. How many flimsy plastic carriers does it take to make one of Sainbury’s new 5p carrier bags? They would argue that the stronger carrier is more reusable. But how many times would it have to be reused to compensate for replacing the lighter bag?

Take me for example. Previously I would have used the light carrier to carry my shopping home, and then reused it at least once for my rubbish. Two uses. I don’t have a scales sensitive enough to work out what the weight differential is between the two bags, but say, for the sake of argument, it is three times heavier (although in reality it may be more like five times). Then, so as not to create more waste and exacerbate the problem that the 5p charge aims to solve, the new bag would have to be used six (or ten) times. The bag I bought this morning already has a small tear near the base. It certainly isn’t going to last another five uses.

Sainsbury’s offers to recycle and replace the bag for free when it is worn out. Recycling plastic film is better than throwing it in landfill, however it still involves energy and other resource use. So, unless you’ve used the bag many times before recycling it, it still places an additional burden on the environment. Sainsbury’s has always offered to recycle its old plastic bags, and replace its strong shoppers or ‘bags for life’ for free, but how many of us actually avail ourselves of this service from our supermarkets. I’ve never brought one of their shoppers back to be replaced, and I consider myself to be careful about my bag use.


Although the tax will mean that we use fewer plastic carriers, if those carriers have three to five times the environmental impact, will this hamper any good the charge could do?

Photo courtesy of Alena Marth 

Originally posted 5th October 2015

Climates admin 24.06.2016 0 239
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