Is your ‘bag for life’ harming, rather than helping, the environment?

Research by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) and Greenpeace illustrates the problematic nature of 'bag for life' use in supermarkets.

Since October 5, 2015, it has been law in the UK for supermarkets to charge 5p per single-use plastic carrier bag. Putting this cost in place is an effort to deter shoppers from using plastic bags. They are encouraged to adopt an alternative, more sustainable method: purchasing a ‘bag for life’ is one option on offer.

The clue is in the name. These bags are intended for reuse over and over and over again. The bright orange Sainbury’s version even features a cartoon elephant which reads ‘I’m strong and sturdy’.

But did you know that you can return your ‘bag for life’ when it is worn out and has seen better days, to get a free replacement? My guess is, probably not.

Research by Greenpeace and the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) has shown that consumers are failing to utilise the reusable nature of this storage solution. Their report revealed how supermarkets plan to tackle the plastic problem contributing to our pollution crisis.

A notable finding was that the ‘bag for life’ was being treated more like a ‘bag for a day’. However, in order for these bags to be effective in helping the environment, they must be used a minimum of four times.

But the study found that ‘over the past year, there has been a 26% increase in sales of ‘bags for life’, representing 54 per household in the UK’. The report explains: ‘It is clear from this data that many people are simply swapping ‘single-use’ plastic bags for these plastic bags for ‘life’.

The drastic rise of ‘bag for life’ purchases – and huge amount per household – illustrates that the idea of a ‘bag for life’ is not being utilised. These bags are being disposed of, not reused, despite their planned purpose.

More optimistically, in the Republic of Ireland, there has been a 90% reduction in bags for life sales. This was achieved by significantly increasing the price of a ‘bag for life’.

As a result, EIA and Greenpeace ‘recommend a price increase to at least 70p – or ideally to remove them altogether, enforced by a Government ban’. This means people will be more likely to remember to take their reusable bag with them, rather than impulsively buy another one each time they shop.

This advice has already been taken on board by Sainbury’s, who increased the price of a ‘bag for life’ from 10p to 20p last month (November 2019). Waitrose similarly encourage the re-use of bags in their helpful article, including top tips about how to remember your ‘bag for life’.

Moral of the story? As a consumer, think twice before buying another ‘bag for life’ and, instead, reuse the ones sitting at home in a cupboard until you physically cannot reuse them any more. But the power is not just in the hands of the shopper.

Supermarkets, especially in the wake of this research, should take their environmental responsibility more seriously. This goes for the materials they make readily available not just in terms of bags – as is the focus of attention in this article – but in packaging more generally.

The Greenpeace and EIA report goes into detail about this, which is worth checking out further. But for now, let’s try and give these reusable bags the long life they deserve.


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