Carrier Bags

Facts About Supermarket Carrier Bags

Initially the only argument put forward to justify the introduction of levies or bans on carrier bags was to reduce litter, but now it is claimed that levies will also reduce resource consumption and protect marine life.

The Litter Argument

  • Their is no correlation between the number of bags used and the number that get littered,  The number of littered bags depends on the number of thoughtless or careless people who discard them.

  • Carrier bags are NOT a significant cause of litter.  According to Keep Britain Tidy's Local Environment Quality Survey (LEQS) reports, supermarket carrier bags were present at only 4% of the sites surveyed in 2010/11, down from 7% in 2003/04 - and therefore not present at 96% of sites.  It should be noted that even at those 4% of sites where carrier bags were present, there may only have been a single bag.

  • Two years after the introduction in 2002 of a levy on plastic carrier bags in Ireland (introduced ostensibly to solve a litter problem) they still constituted 0.22% of litter according to the Irish Litter Monitoring Body.  In the latest report 2010, shopping bags (presumably all types) are shown as 0.25%.  In the UK in 2004 all carrier bags were 0.06% and in 2008 only 0.03%.  Source ENCAMS (previous name for Keep Britain Tidy) survey of a number of littered items carried out in a sample of the LEQS sites. 

  • There is no excuse for littering anything in countries with an efficient waste management infrastructure.  By contrast, in countries such as Rwanda and Bangladesh with no municipal waste collection services or litter bins, and where bags can clog drains and exacerbate flooding, bans can be justified - though the long term solution is to introduce proper waste management systems.  

CONCLUSION: A levy on bags which aims to reduce litter in England would be both disproportionate and ineffective.

The Resource Reduction Argument

  • A DEFRA/WRAP study IPSOS MORI in 2007 showed that 80% of households reuse their plastic bags at least once for lining bins, wrapping used nappies or food waste before putting them in the bin, or for cleaning up after dogs. Only 6% throw them away immediately.

  • The levy on plastic carrier bags in Ireland has had a net negative environmental effect. It resulted in more lorries on the roads (to deliver heavier alternative types of bags to shops) and more plastic being used as sales of tailor-made bags for bin liners and other purposes replaced the carriers.

  • Statistics published by HM Customs and Excise show the amount of all types of plastic bags and sacks used in Ireland in 2001 (before the levy) was 29.8 thousand tonnes and in 2006 it had increased to 31.6 thousand tonnes.
CONCLUSION: A levy on carrier bags is highly unlikely to conserve total resources (including transport fuel).


The Environmental Protection Argument

  • The UK Environment Agency carried out a major study of supermarket carrier bags that concluded a thin plastic bag does least damage to the environment of any carrier bag.

  • Plastic bags do not biodegrade in landfill sites. This is a good thing because it means they do not emit greenhouse gases and do not leach chemicals into the water table. And they occupy less than 0.03% of the space in landfills.

  • In some areas, where residual waste is collected once a fortnight, people are advised to wrap waste in carrier bags to guard against flies and rats.



Carrier Bag

CONCLUSION: The best way to reduce the (relatively tiny) environmental impact of supermarket carrier bags is to use them more than once.

The Protection of the Marine Environment Argument

  • It is highly regrettable that some plastic is discarded at sea or finds its way into the oceans. However media photographs of plastic found on beaches, or recovered from whales’ stomachs appear to show they are predominantly large rubbish bags, and bags used in the construction industry, or plastic sheet used in agriculture, rather than carrier bags.

  • 1987 Canadian study in Newfoundland of 100,000 marine mammals and birds attributed their deaths mainly to fishing nets and did not mention plastic bags. This study was misquoted in a 2002 report for the Australian government which attributed the deaths to plastic bags – only in 2006 was the mistake corrected, replacing ‘plastic bags’ with ‘plastic debris’.

CONCLUSION: While moves to prevent marine litter are very necessary, the current state of evidence about what that litter is and where it comes from does not support the introduction of a levy on carrier bags.

The 'Iconic Symbol' Argument

  • Some policymakers have justified restricting use of bags because they are an iconic symbol of consumer society. If that really is a good reason then it should presumably apply equally to all other symbols such as mobile phones and trainers.

  • Some policymakers say that if people take small actions to protect the environment, such as not using carrier bags, this will encourage them to move on to taking bigger actions. However there is no evidence to support this. On the contrary, there is evidence that people feel absolved from doing anything else.

  • People are even made to feel guilty about using carrier bags.  

CONCLUSION: There is no justification for giving carrier bags special treatment and it gives consumers the wrong message to imply that it is a big environmental issue, especially when the Environmental Agency itself concluded that plastic bags were an environmentally responsible way for consumers to carry their groceries home. Policymakers should tackle the big problems, such as energy, food and water shortages and not focus on the trivial.

For more information on carrier bags see:

Environmental Audit Committee Report on Plastic Bags January 2014

Life cycle assessment of supermarket carrier bags - Environment Agency Report