1.5 billion ‘bags for life’ add to growing plastic waste in the UK

Retailers were responsible for more than 900,000 tons of plastic waste in 2018, according to a joint report from the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) and Greenpeace released Thursday.

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Seven of the 10 largest supermarket chains reported a higher plastic packaging tonnage in 2019 compared to last year, although exact figures for this year have not been released.

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Compared to 2018, this year the number of supposedly eco-friendly bags for life sold rose by about 25%, based on market share, the report states.

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Campaigners said the rise showed that the durable bags are now being used by many as a replacement for single-use carrier bags.

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‘Bags for life’ contain a lot more plastic than single-use carrier bags, and 1.5 billion were sold in 2019. This is equivalent to 22 bags each per man, woman and child.

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Campaigners recommend that supermarkets increase the price of bags for life to 70 pence ($0.90). They point to the 90% reduction in bags for life sales in Ireland, where prices are set at 70 cents ($0.77).

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However, in an ideal world bags for life would be removed completely, enforced by a government ban, said campaigners.

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“It’s shocking to see that despite unprecedented awareness of the pollution crisis, the amount of single-use plastic used by the UK’s biggest supermarkets has actually increased in the past year,” said Juliet Phillips, EIA ocean campaigner.

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“Our survey shows that grocery retailers need to tighten up targets to drive real reductions in single-use packaging and items. We need to address our throwaway culture at (its) root through systems change, not materials change — substituting one single-use material for another is not the solution.”

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The report reveals that plastic use among suppliers is also to blame, and supermarkets have failed to make them reduce plastic packaging.

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Tesco has led the way in this area, threatening to delist products for suppliers who fail to cut excessive plastic. Campaigners are urging other supermarkets to do the same.

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Waitrose came top of the plastic use league table, reducing its footprint year-on-year, with Morrisons second.

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Sainsbury’s came in third, a marked improvement over its tenth place showing in 2018, while Aldi and Asda were the bottom two this year.

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Plastic waste is a global issue and various countries have taken action to reduce its impact.

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Kenya made it illegal to use, manufacture and import plastic bags for commercial and household packaging in August 2017.

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In March the European Parliament approved a law banning a wide range of single-use plastic items, such as straws, cotton buds and cutlery, by 2021.

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The UK government followed suit in May, announcing plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds will be banned in England from April 2020.

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In June, Canada announced many single-use plastic items will be banned by 2021, including bags, straws, cutlery and stirring sticks.

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