Everybody faces the same problem when it comes to plastic carrier bags – there’s just too many of them! Kitchen drawers across the country are spilling over with them, and they just seem to keep multiplying. Despite doing what we can in terms of using a ‘bag for life’ or reusing our old ones, the problem of carrier bags seems to be going nowhere, and they’re having a real impact on the world around us.
The widespread use of plastic carrier bags was first introduced by retailers to replace paper bags - which would often fall apart when carrying frozen goods and chilled foods. For retailers, they provided a cost effective alternative, with a plastic bag costing an estimated £0.01156 to produce.
Since then, we’ve come to learn of the damage being done to the planet by carrier bags, as they typically end up in landfills where they can take hundreds or even thousands of years to fully decompose. Also, if a bag is littered out in the open, it will not only spoil the beauty of the natural landscape, but could also get mistaken for food by wildlife. This results in the unnecessary deaths of countless birds and mammals each year.
Research conducted in coastal marshes has shown that discarded plastic bags quickly cause a lot of harm, due to the fact that as soon as they break down they smother the surface of the water, blocking light, oxygen and nutrient flow, stifling the organisms below.
WHAT’S BEING DONE TO TACKLE THE PROBLEM?
The plastic industry and many retailers would like to solve the problem by making plastic bags lighter, or from compostable materials, but this solution is not considered cost effective enough for it to be fully implemented. Instead, environmental lobbyists are pushing the EU to make changes in order to reduce the number of carrier bags to 40 per person per year by the end of 2025 (we currently average about 90 to 100 per person).
But should we even be using 40? We survived without them for a long time before Swedish engineer Sten Thulin patented them in 1962.
In October, many major supermarkets and retailers across England will be introducing the 5p plastic bag levy in an attempt to reduce the number of bags in circulation. This is following the example set by Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, where in the first year of the 5p charge, the use of plastic bags dropped by a massive 96%.
THE PROBLEM WITH ‘BAGS FOR LIFE’
For many people, using a ‘bag for life’ seems to be the obvious solution in dealing with the carrier bag problem, but the facts point towards a different story all together. Last year the British Environmental Agency published findings in the ‘Life Cycle Assessment of Supermarket Carrier Bags’ that showed that ‘bags for life’ have to be used a number of times before they can be considered a better environmental option than plastic carrier bags. For example, if a plastic carrier bag is used just once, then a plastic ‘bag for life’ has to be used four times in order to offset the energy costs used in its manufacturing and transportation, and for a cotton ‘bag for life’, this number rises to an astonishing 131 times. So where does this leave us in terms of what we can do to make a difference?
REUSE, RECYCLE & REPURPOSE
Always carry your plastic bags with you when you do your shopping so that you’re not collecting any more!
Should you have your supermarket shop delivered, a good idea is to give the bags back to the driver so they can be used for another delivery.
Some councils are beginning to collect carrier bags as part of a household recycling scheme, however, this isn’t widespread at the moment so it’s worth checking your own local council.
Many of the larger supermarket chains have now introduced carrier bag collection points in store, normally found around the entrance. These collection points also accept other forms of plastic, and are a good option if you find yourself with too many bags to feasibly reuse.
A good way to repurpose a carrier bag is to use it as a bin liner, this reduces the need to purchase dedicated bin bags, and also means that only one carrier bag is being thrown away at a time.
Think about how plastic carrier bags can be used in other ways as well. They make ideal packaging when sending delicate items in the post, and if you’re really crafty, you can find guides online that teach you how to make everything from jewellery and ornaments, to even sturdier long lasting carrier bags.
If we all do our bit and consider how we use carrier bags and look for alternatives, we can all help make a difference to the health of our planet and reduce our consumption of plastic.