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A charge for plastic bags? Just ban them!

We used eight billion plastic bags in supermarkets last year. Please help us stop using them by simply not stocking them.


by Victoria Bischoff on Aug 01, 2012 at 11:41

A charge for plastic bags? Just ban them!

Plastic bags are bad.

They are bad for the environment, litter our country and endanger wildlife.

Yet, although we all know this, we Brits used some eight BILLION carrier bags for our supermarket shopping last year. This is the second year this number has risen since a government campaign bought the total down from over 12 billion in 2006.

England, with a population of around 52 million, is by far the worst culprit, with shoppers using some 6.8 billion bags. In comparison, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, which together have a population of around 10 million, used a total of 1.2 billion.

Despite this, England is the only country not to be seriously considering introducing a levy on plastic bags – Wales has charged 5p a bag since October last year, Northern Ireland is bringing in a charge next year, and Scotland is currently consulting on a similar tax. 

However, while the stats indicate a small charge on plastic bags would help encourage shoppers to switch to using recyclable bags or ‘bags for life’, I say we go one step further and just get rid of the single-use ones altogether.

If you don’t take your own bag with you when you go shopping then you fork out for as many recyclable bags as you need. End of story.

They've done it across the water in Los Angeles and San Francisco so why not here? In fact, some stores in the UK are already on board. Health store Holland and Barrett became the first high street chain to introduce a ban on plastic bags back in 2010.

I say this in the full knowledge that when I nip down to Tesco for a few bits in my lunch-break or on my way home from work I often grab one of these mightily convenient environmental hazards as I never seem to have one of the many bags for life I’ve previously bought with me.

It’s not a habit I’m proud of, and am working on breaking it. But like any smoker trying to quit, I just wish shops would help me out a bit and stop leaving free packs of cigarettes/plastic bags lying around in full view at the end of their check-out counters.

The figures plainly show that the government’s recent campaign to get the nation to cut back on plastic bags is running out of steam – something more needs to be done.

I’m just not sure charging 2p, 5p or even 10p for a carrier bag will give us the kick up the behind we need to ensure we remember to pop a recyclable bag into our pocket before leaving the house.

Taking the bad bags out of the equation completely, however, will.

29 comments so far. Why not have your say?


Aug 01, 2012 at 13:21

The plastic in a carrier bag is a fraction of the plastic in the packaging of the things we put in the bags. To pick on plastic bags and ignore the gratuitous bloated over-packaging of the goods we put in them is ridiculous.

Try this: compare the weight of a supermarket plastic bag to the weight of the plastic in the packaging of the goods you buy from the supermarket and put in the bag. You will find there is about 20 times the weight of plastic in the goods-packaging than the plastic bag we put them in.

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Rosemary Pettit

Aug 01, 2012 at 13:31

No problem about agreeing with the previous post. But this is rather like saying there's no point in cleaning your teeth if you are smoking 50 a day. Deal with the smaller evil (dirty teeth/plastic bags), big enough in itself, and it will be no more difficult - possibly easier - to get public support to cut down 50 a day and plastic packaging.

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Aug 01, 2012 at 13:31

I and many others use them as bin liners to put my rubbish in before disposing in bin. I would just have to buy rolls of bin liner bags instead so my overall plastic bag use would not change.

I wonder whether the increase in bin liner bag sales has been noted in Wales.

Remember that the use of supermarket USA style paper bags were found to be even worse as these had a much higher Carbon footprint . What is the carbon footprint of a non recyclable shopping bag -made in china ?

These days most people do not shop for a few items but go to supermarkets and load up. That is a lot of bulky non recyclable bags to carry around with you


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Ryan McC

Aug 01, 2012 at 13:53

I'm sure all the profits from the sale of bags will go to environmental projects...right?

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Aug 01, 2012 at 13:55


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Aug 01, 2012 at 14:01

Here in South Africa we have been paying for our supermarket and store plastic bags for over 6 years.

Discarded bags liter the roadsides and the Townships are plastered with them. We call them here the "roses of Africa" as one drives past the townships there are thousands of plastic bags caught on the bushes and hedges.

It would appear that charging for these bags here has not made the slightest difference and the amount of litter remains the same!

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alan thorburn

Aug 01, 2012 at 14:05

Why not supply brown paper bags like Primark do ?

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Alan Tonks

Aug 01, 2012 at 14:13

“Plastic bags are bad.”

No it’s the careless slovenly attitude of today, paper bags do not litter and so-called humans do.

“They are bad for the environment, litter our country and endanger wildlife”.

No it is the people who litter our country who are bad for the environment and endanger the wildlife.

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Rosemary Pettit

Aug 01, 2012 at 15:12

Why not look at what is practical and seen to work? At some point a charge on plastic bags would be seen as so high that most people would rather make alternative arrangements. And there are alternatives. Only a generation ago people went shopping with a basket or a canvas or string bag. A wheelie does the business and is much kinder to the hands than plastic bags. If the incentive was there we'd all remember to pack a re-usable bag when we went to work.

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Aug 01, 2012 at 16:06

Alan I agree, if I ruled the world selective breeding would rid the world of litterers, spongers, greedy bankers, the work shy..........................

Luckily for society I don't

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Aug 01, 2012 at 16:08

Absolutely right AlanTonks. I see more plastic bottles and fast food packaging around than plastic bags. All bags can be recyclable and as far as our animal friends are concerned, if they eat plastic then its more likely to be the remains of a burger in a styrofoam package but actually I suspect most animals are wiser than that. There are so many miserable aspects to human behaviour which the zealots try and control by price and regulation - chewing gum and cigarette disposal being two - and it does not work! Education and pride in self and environmental appearance is the way to do it. Keep Britain Tidy did a lot of good back in the 80s? but now too many people pass of the responsibility to 'someone' who cleans up after them.

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Aug 01, 2012 at 16:35

Nylon clothes. When we wash them tiny particles of nylon go into the water supply. These are ingested by micro organisms and end up going back into the food chain. Let's also ban nylon clothes please.

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C Reed

Aug 01, 2012 at 17:11

Why Doesn't Victoria Biscoff shut the hell up and mind her own business.

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Paul Scott

Aug 01, 2012 at 17:16

What a ridiculous article! Plastic bags are NOT single use! Many of us use them again instead of a bin liner. So if they ban plastic bags, then we will just have to buy bin liners instead! Duh, you haven't really thought this through at all, have you Victoria? Personally I use a rucksack for shopping, but when I run out of plastic bags to use as a kitchen bin, I stop taking my own bag until I've accumulated about 10 plastic bags to re-use as bins.

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Ian Phillips

Aug 01, 2012 at 17:26

"LOLLY, simple advice on growing your money"

So why not stick to this and leave all leftie, enviromental, knock a pensioner twaddle to another site??


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Harry Brooks (Citywire)

Aug 01, 2012 at 17:38

C Reed, disagree with this article as forcefully as you like, but please try to show some basic courtesy. You might at least explain why you disagree, and spelling the author's name correctly would be good too. We have a tolerant policy on comment, but there are limits.

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Mallory Elis

Aug 01, 2012 at 17:39


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Graham Williams

Aug 01, 2012 at 19:16

I re-use plastic bags for shopping, use them as kitchen bin liners, and use them to put items in for the LA recycling collection as requested by them. Just because the author of this article is not organized she should not assume that we are all so sloppy. Could it be a generation problem where education and discipline has been lacking.

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Howard Rippiner

Aug 01, 2012 at 19:51

Like several other contributors here, we recycle our supermarket bags - both re-use at the store and as bin liners. They are only used for the latter when they are no longer strong enough to carry heavy shopping.

I don't believe supermarkets are doing anywhere near enough research into creating paper bags as an alternative, that are bird / animal-friendly & easily biodegradable. Paper products may have had a high carbon foot-print in the past. Now it will be less for recycled paper and probably a lot less than plastic packaging. Anyone who has observed the widespread switch from polystyrene chips to crumpled paper for box packaging can see the rapid reduction in oil-based products for packaging. Why are the supermarkets so slow in following suit?

As to humans, the UK Government is far to tolerant of those who discard rubbish - be it plastic bags, tin cans, plastic bottles or fag ends. If you go to Switzerland, Austria or numerous other countries on the continent you will see far less rubbish strewn around. People there are far more concious & caring of the environment around them. We need tighter laws for dropping / discarding litter with a first offence fine of at least £1,000 - preferably £5,000 and 100 hours community service picking up litter.

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Anonymous 1 needed this 'off the record'

Aug 01, 2012 at 20:30

Just look what happened to Osama Bin Liner

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an elder one

Aug 01, 2012 at 20:55

Our borough council collects plastic containers, including plastic bags, for recycling, all single use bags and food wrappers go into a large plastic bag they provide; are we alone?

Generally the litter problem is a lack of self discipline with some people and no so called remedies will work with them I fear; out in the countryside it's not only plastic bags that litter the place, it's also drinking water bottles, coke and lager cans, fag packets, crisp packets, plastic bags containing dog poo, etc, etc.

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Dylantherabbit via mobile

Aug 01, 2012 at 21:39

Charging for plastic bags is great business for supermarkets even if the money goes to charity. Think of all the reusable bags they sell and the saving on logistics from not having to ship plastic bags all over the country. It's not like there is a change in the amount of bags, you still need a bag, box or whatever to carry your shopping. Paper is considerably heavier than plastic so is not a viable alternative to plastic due to the increase in shipping weight. The problem of plastic bags, if there is a problem, needs more thought.

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Jim Dedicoat

Aug 01, 2012 at 22:52

Like many above we re-use supermarket and other plastic bags which also become our waste bags to put in the bin liner.

This what recycling is about, not having to buy new plastic bags just for the kitchen waste.

If Victoria cannot see beyond the end of her nose, perhaps its time to keep her opinions to herself and do us all a favour

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Aug 02, 2012 at 06:20

Plastic bags have become a very useful household item, reuseable especially in sealing unsightly waste, packing for a picnic, disposing nappies.....

IKEA don't provide free plastic bags. On many occasions when I forgot to bring my bags, I simply put the small items back on the shelf. Did the supermarkets perseverie with charges on flimsy bags. Their thicker reuseable bags is simply another product line, as demanded by a different type of customers who believe in charges.

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Aug 02, 2012 at 10:15

I regularly disgust myself with how much non recyclable plastic has to go in the bin every week. Plastic carrier bags are a small proportion of this volume so I feel the main force of the governments intervention after anti plastic propaganda should be to introduce a product packaging tax for any product sold encased in plastic and a higher tax for a non re-clable material.

Make the cost of plastic sales higher to discourage its use and channel the revenue into developing better collection and reycling methods!

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Michael Stevens

Aug 02, 2012 at 13:56

Plastic Bags should have a tax of 10p each. Wales has done this and reduced useage by over 85%.

Also incombe for the exchequer.

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Ed the 5th

Aug 02, 2012 at 15:55

A plastic-packed block of cheese makes a nice sandwich using slices of bread from a plastic-packed sliced loaf.

Also buy some plastic-packed salad, plastic-packed carrots & plastic-packed tomatoes for a vegetarian snack.

It is not only the public who need to be persuaded not to use unnecessary plastic.

Also why do we buy rolls of plastic bags, in cardboard packaging, to clean up after our pet dogs - & then knot the bags up so that the contents cannot decompose?

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Aug 02, 2012 at 16:44

Ed the 5th, have you ever smelt dog sh1t, picking it up is bad enough. Though the bags I buy are bio degradable and I just hope I get home before the sh1t falls through the bag.

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Aug 10, 2012 at 18:59

With the urging of environmental groups backed by the celebrity firepower of actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus, the city of Los Angles banned plastic supermarket bags last week. The law received added support from the Los Angeles Times, which published a house editorial encouraging the city council to enact the ban. Without presenting any quantitative evidence, the editors wrote that plastic bags pose a "huge cost to the environment" and that reusable totes and paper bags are "better options." Unsupported claims to this effect are widespread in the press and among advocacy groups, but they are at odds with scientific data.

In 2011, the United Kingdom's Environment Agency released a study that evaluated nine categories of environmental impacts caused by different types of supermarket bags. The study found that paper bags have a worse effect on the environment than plastic bags in all nine impact categories, which include global warming potential, abiotic depletion, acidification, eutrophication, human toxicity, fresh water aquatic ecotoxicity, marine aquatic ecotoxicity, terrestrial ecotoxicity, and photochemical oxidation.

Furthermore, the study found that the average supermarket shopper would have to reuse the same cotton tote from 94 up to 1,899 times before it had less environmental impact than the disposable plastic bags needed to carry the same amount of groceries. This wide-varying amount of reuse that is required until the breakeven point is reached depends upon the type of environmental impact, but the median is 314 times, and it is more 179 times for all but one of the 9 impact categories.

For example, a shopper would need to reuse the same cotton tote 350 times before it caused less fresh water aquatic ecotoxicity than all of the plastic bags that it would replace over this period. Given the improbability that the same cotton tote would last that long (its expected life is 52 reuses), in most cases plastic bags will have less environmental impact.

Why is this? Because the environmental impacts of supermarket bags are dominated by the energy and raw materials needed to manufacture them. Plastic bags are inexpensive because relatively small amounts of energy and raw materials are needed to make them. These same attributes that make plastic bags affordable and light also make them easier on the environment than alternatives like paper bags and reusable cotton totes.

Critics of plastic bags frequently argue that they "take hundreds of years to decompose," and the LA Times editors advance this storyline by showing a picture of a dump with a caption that reads, "ENDURING: A plastic grocery store bag lies amid the trash at a Calabasas landfill." Such logic ignores reality in two key respects.

First, modern-day landfills are generally benign because they have composite liners, clay caps, and runoff collections systems. As explained in a 1999 paper in the Journal of Environmental Engineering, modern landfills have "minimum odor nuisance," "pose few problems after they are closed," and "are a tribute to sanitary engineering." Moreover, after being closed, landfills can be used for parks, commercial development, golf courses, nature conservatories, ski slopes, and airfields.

Second, even organic materials in landfills commonly take hundreds of years to decompose. Many people are ill-informed of this fact because of websites like WikiAnswers, corporations like Disney, major media outlets like CBS-and because they have been misled about this subject since their youth. Such misinformation flows from educational resources like the Environmental Education Exchange's middle school curriculum on recycling, which states that paper bags take about a month to decompose in a landfill. Nearly the same content appears on, which has been honored by Apple, Microsoft, and Encyclopedia Britannica as one the world's top education resources. These resources invoke the credibility of unidentified "scientists" to support this claim about paper bags and similar claims about other organic materials, but the scientific facts prove otherwise.

A study of landfills sponsored by the University of Arizona found that the tightly compacted contents of landfills create low-oxygen environments that inhibit decomposition. The details of the study were published in the book, Rubbish: The Archaeology of Garbage (2001), which explains that:

• "the dynamics of a landfill are very nearly the opposite of what most people think."

• landfills "are not vast composters; rather, they are vast mummifiers."

• "almost all the organic material" from the 1950s in a Phoenix landfill "remained readily identifiable: Pages from coloring books were still clearly that, onion parings were onion parings, carrot tops were carrot tops."

• much of the organic material in an ancient Roman landfill that was twenty centuries old had not fully decomposed.

Up until the second century A.D., most literature was written on papyrus, an organic paper-like product. Papyrus is very vulnerable to moisture and deteriorates quickly when handled, but some of these documents survived thousands of years to the present era simply because they were deposited in landfills and thus shielded from decay. Like disposable plastic bags, reusable cotton bags wind up in landfills at the end of their useful lives and will likely be intact hundreds or thousands of years from now.

Another common talking point about supermarket plastic bags is that they are rarely recycled, but this argument ignores the fact that a large portion of supermarket plastic bags (40% in the U.K.) are reused as garbage pail liners. Interestingly, the U.K. study found that it is better for the environment to reuse these bags as garbage pail liners rather than recycle them. This is due to the environmental "benefits of avoiding the production of the bin liners they replace."

Environmental impact studies can sometimes produce conflicting results, but Just Facts is unaware of any evidence that would overturn the general findings of the U.K. study. The study may even understate the environmental impacts of reusable cotton totes because it doesn't account for regularly washing them, which is recommended because they can harbor dangerous bacteria from meat drippings and other foods.

The study did find that with moderate reuse, plastic totes made from polypropylene are better for the environment than disposable plastic bags, but this doesn't negate the fact that standard plastic bags are a more environmentally friendly choice than so-called green alternatives like paper bags and reusable cotton totes. Thus, when governments outlaw plastic bags to "improve the environment," they actually create more pollution.

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