Once-upon-a-time the ‘Bag for Life’ was brought in as a solution to the single-use plastic problem. But many now fear that the bag for life is getting the same treatment as its one-use predecessor, and with an even more negative impact.

As a result, some of the leading supermarket chains have been making big changes in order to make their carrier bag options more sustainable.

This also comes as the UK government has announced an update to the plastic carrier bag charge which will see their universal cost double from the original 5p to 10p.

Coming into effect from the 21st May, this new charge is to be rolled out across not only the currently participating retailers, but smaller stores as well, including corner shops.

One of the supermarkets leading the way with changes to their carrier bag options are UK-based food retailers, The Co-operative Group. The Co-op’s Chief Executive, Jo Whitfield, has explained that the one-use culture of the Bag for Life is “leading to a major hike in the amount of plastic being produced”.

And with more than 1.5 billions Bags for Life sold each year, this is now becoming a “massive issue” for plastic pollution caused by the retail industry. When the plastic bag levy was originally brought into effect back in 2015, it was predicted that the new 5 pence charge on single-use carrier bags would reduce usage by up to 80%. Since these predictions, the UK government has reported an overall 95% decrease in plastic bag usage since the charge was introduced. Statistics from the government have also suggested that the average annual bag use of 140 per person back in 2014 has since reduced to less than 4 in 2020.

Despite these seemingly positive figures, there are still questions as to whether the environmental impacts of the Bag for Life are in fact that much different to the previous one-use plastic carrier bag. With it being estimated that the average Bag for Life takes 3x as much plastic as the single-use carrier, it was in fact reported that supermarkets sold 41,579 tonnes more Bags for Life than the previous plastic carrier bag.

On top of this, it is estimated that the Bag for Life needs to be used 4 times in order to achieve the equivalent carbon footprint as the single-use carrier.

With this said, there are many concerns that the Bag for Life has actually become just another one-use alternative despite its much stronger and more durable design. As a result, their overall impact upon the environment and ecosystems has been estimated to be much more than the single-use carrier bag.

The Supermarket Solution

This has led supermarket chains life The Co-op and Morrison’s to turn to paper, string, woven, and compostable alternatives. Following a successful trial in 2020, Morrison’s became the first supermarket to do a plastic bags cleanse in their stores; instead offering customers a selection of completely plastic-free carrier bags. Carrier bag options at their stores now include; the 30p paper bag, and reusable string and jute totes ranging between 75p and £2.50.

The Co-op have made similar arrangements in their stores, with plans to cease plastic bag sales altogether once their current supply has been exhausted across their 2,600 stores. Customers will instead be offered woven and foldable bags costing between 50p and £1, as well as the option of a compostable bag for 10p that can then be used as a food-waste caddy liner.

A higher price for bags for life?

Many sources have suggested that the problem with the Bag for Life is that their low-cost is not enough to incentivise shoppers to reuse; suggesting that by increasing the price of the bag, rates of repurchase will decrease. It is yet to be seen whether the price increase of the standard carrier bag could have knock-on effects for the price of the Bag for Life in stores where they can still be purchased.

The overarching agreement among plastic campaigners is that the effects of plastic carrier bags are having seriously negative impacts upon the environment as a result of the resources taken to produce them initially, as well as their disposal in landfill and the oceans.

However, it is important to remember that as well as reuse, recycling is also a great way to cut down on the environmental impacts of the Bag for Life.

Is the Bag for Life recyclable? 

Typically made from Low-Density Polyethylene (LDPE), the Bag for Life is generally highly recyclable and is collected at many retail stores across the UK for recycling.

Whilst carrier bags are generally not collected by local authorities, many retailers offer recycling collection points in their participating stores, including brands like: Morrison’s, The Co-op, Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s, and Waitrose; with some even offering a refund for the cost of the bag on return.

With many positive steps being taken in the right direction, the impacts of the measures being taken by supermarket retailers and the UK government are to be eagerly awaited.