Carrier bags – the facts

The facts about carrier bags
In the face of massive economic pressure, fuelled by a good deal of misinformed reporting by some national media, the Prime Minister is said to be considering legislation forcing retailers to charge for plastic bags. This, despite evidence from the Government’s Environment Agency, which proves that the lightweight plastic bag is the best environmental choice if re-used – as it is by more than three-quarters of all households – or recycled (the full version of the Environment Agency report is also available to download).

Cromwell Polythene is concerned to redress this tide of misinformation, not least because carrier bags represent an important element of the feedstock used in the production of recycled content sacks. The company is a member of the Carrier Bag Consortium, which operates within PAFA, the UK’s lead trade association for the £2 billion plastic packaging industry.

This briefing aid is aimed at helping those who may have been influenced by the anti-carrier bag bandwagon. It reproduces 20 irrefutable statements – all from respected sources – in defence of the humble carrier bag:

  1. Used carrier bags are not, in themselves, litter. It is only anti-social behaviour by some members of the public that creates litter. Liz Goodwin, WRAP’s CEO, warned: “You have to decide which problem you are trying to deal with, litter or the volume of plastic used. We have got to remember that taxes and levies can have perverse effects – such as making people use more plastic rather than less. Our focus should be on reducing environmental impacts of the bags by making them lighter or out of recycled content.”
  2. A levy on plastic would be likely to mean a switch towards paper, which uses more energy in production and releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas, when they degrade in landfill, according to WRAP.
  3. The Government is irresponsible to jump on a bandwagon that has no base in scientific evidence. This is one of many examples where you get bad science leading to bad decisions which are counter-productive. Attacking plastic bags makes people feel good but it doesn’t achieve anything.
    Lord Taverne, Chairman of Sense about Science, March 2008, The Times
  4. Plastic bags don’t figure in entanglement. The main culprits are fishing gear, ropes, lines and strapping bands. Most mammals are too big to get caught up in a plastic bag. The impact of bags on whales, dolphins, porpoises and seals ranges from nil for most species to very minor for perhaps a few species. For birds, plastic bags are not a problem either.
    David Laist, Marine Mammals Commission (US), March 2008, The Times
  5. It’s very unlikely that many animals are killed by plastic bags, the evidence shows just the opposite.
    David Santillo, Marine Biologist, Greenpeace, March 2008, The Times
  6. I’ve never seen a (sea) bird killed by a plastic bag. Other forms of plastic in the ocean are much more damaging. Only a very small proportion is caused by bags.
    Prof Geoff Boxshall, Marine Biologist Natural History Museum, March 2008, The Times
  7. It’s a problem when you see Governments basing their recommendations on science that’s no longer accurate.
    Colin Butfield, World Wildlife Fund for Nature, March 2008, The Times
  8. It is far better to incentivise shoppers to change their habits than clobber them with a levy on bags which is nothing more than a green gimmick. The environmental impact of plastic bags is greatly exaggerated and charging for their use will drive consumers to use more damaging heavy gauge bin-bags, as they have done in Ireland.
    Andy Clarke, Retail Director Asda, March 2008, The Times
  9. Plastic bags are a useful part of the household scene. I admit they don’t look very attractive when they are stuck on barbed wire – but it’s not good enough to say that plastic bags are a nuisance.
    Sir Ken Morrison, Former Chairman of Morrisons March 2008, The Sun
  10. We don’t see reducing the use of plastic bags as our biggest priority. Of all the waste that goes to landfill, 20% is household waste and 0.3% is plastic bags.
    Charlie Mayfield, Chairman John Lewis, March 2008
  11. A levy on plastic bags in Ireland only made matters worse – people underestimate how many plastic bags are used to put out recycling or are substituted for plastic bin bags. “We have got to remember that taxes and levies can have perverse effects – such as making people use more plastic not less.
    Liz Goodwin, CEO WRAP, The Daily Telegraph 28 Sept 2007
  12. This (voluntary) agreement is working – with retailers offering shoppers reusable bags-for-life. We don’t think a ban or levy is the right way to go. In Ireland, people just bought more bin liners to replace free carrier bags, so the volume of waste stayed the same.
    DEFRA, The Guardian, 3 October 2007
  13. But until supermarkets reduce the energy used in their stores, minimise food miles and treat farmers better, saving a few plastic bags is just window dressing.
    Tony Juniper, Friends of the Earth, Daily Mail, 28 January 2008
  14. There have been unforeseen consequences in the Irish Experience… increase in the use of paper bags which are actually worse for the environment.
    Ben Bradshaw, UK Environment Minister, 4 August 2006
  15. A number of unintended consequences appear likely to be connected with the proposed levy… the net environmental impact is an issue of considerable dispute… the Committee therefore recommends that Parliament does not agree to… the Bill.
    Unanimous Conclusion (including the Green party) of the Scottish Parliament, Environment and Rural Development Committee, after two years of investigations, 2006
  16. 0.2% of the average household dustbin is plastic carrier bags… hence a tax on plastic carrier bags alone would be unlikely to have any significant impact on volumes of waste.
    Plastic Bag Tax Assessment, HM Treasury, December 2002
  17. Because so many plastic bags are re-used for domestic waste disposal, the following increase in bin liners and refuse sacks occurred after the tax in Ireland:
    Tesco – 77% increase in pedal bin liner sales
    SuperQuinn – 84% increase in nappy disposable bag sales
    SuperValue/Centra – 75% increase in swing bin liner sales
    Evidence to Scottish Parliament, Environment and Rural Development Committee Hearings 2005
  18. The use of plastic bags in Ireland (including substitute bin liners) analysed through HM Customs figures shows the amount of plastic bags imported into Ireland has actually gone up after their bag tax from 29,846 tonnes in 2001 to 31,649 tonnes in 2006.
    HM Customs statistics (analysed by Mike Kidwell Associates/PAFA 2007)
  19. They represent a fraction of 1%* of waste going to landfill. Retailers of all types are well on the way to reducing the environmental impacts of bags by 25%. They are doing that with the cooperation of customers by rewarding re-use, giving away sturdier bags-for-life, enabling and encouraging recycling and reducing the amount of plastic in bags.
    Kevin Hawkins, Director General, British Retail Consortium, 13 July 2007
  20. *The fraction of landfill represented by plastic shopping bags is 0.05%. This is based on domestic waste being 17% of landfill and plastic bags being 0.2% of the average dustbin.
    Packaging and Films Association 2007
  21. 59% of people re-use ALL their lightweight plastic bags and a FURTHER 16% say they re-use MOST of them.
    WRAP Survey 2005