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News - 22 February 2011

"Are plastic bag a green scapegoat?" asks BRC

Supemarkets, major multiples and small shops have all been doing their bit to minimise the use of plastic bags. In the process they have introduced cotton re-usable and paper re-usable bags and they ask customers if a bag is essential before offering one. But are they missing the point?

The Environment Agency acknowledges that the production process of thin plastic carrier bags has the lowest carbon footprint of any type of bag although the reluctance of most plastic to biodegrade is obviously another matter.

Nevertheless, this might suggest that efforts to replace them with alternatives is not helping the environment as much as envisaged and might be causing a good deal of confusion for customers.

A new report, Life Cycle Assessment of Supermarket Carrier Bags, also shows that a cotton shopping bag has to be re-used at least 131 times to have less environmental impact than a single-use plastic bag. That is more than once a week for two and a half years begging the question "how many people are that conscientious and how many bags actually last that long? "

Working with customers, retailers virtually halved bag use between 2006 and 2010. But, reacting to the report, the British Retail Consortium (BRC) says the continuing focus on plastic bags is a damaging distraction from more important environmental issues.

British Retail Consortium Sustainability Director Andrew Opie said, “We’re pleased to see the Environment Agency’s report acknowledges single-use carrier bags can have less impact than the alternatives. Yes, the plastic bag has become symbolic but this report confirms it is not the great environmental evil some would have us believe.

“Agonising over bags misses the point. There are much bigger targets supermarkets are helping customers to work on, such as reducing food waste. To obsess over bags distracts consumers from making bigger changes to their habits which would do more to benefit the environment.

“Retailers and customers cut bag use by 4.6 billion a year between 2006 and 2010, despite sales increasing during the same period. Handing out bags-for-life and encouraging customers to re-use them is a big part of that.  Efforts to cut down bag use will continue but they must not be the only focus.” 

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Environment Agency
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