Bag… to the Future

beach pollution

Taking the dog for an evening stroll. An hour of tranquillity, and allow nature to take its course.  Do you take a nice cotton bag for Digby’s droppings, or something more functional?  More hygienic?  More plastic?

As environmental awareness grows, sceptics see the humble carrier bag as the tree-huggers emblem of false prophecy, that they wouldst have us all return from the supermarket, pockets bursting with organic groceries, ideally on a bicycle.

Environmentalists, and politicians, are aware disposable shopping bags represent a modicum of environmental issues presently threatening Earth.  Yet high density polyethylene (HDPE) carrier bags, 6.8 billion of which are despatched in the UK every year, have become a topic of controversy and contention at tills, bars and offices countrywide, as we are forced to request one, or worse; pay.  Is this warranted?  A question currently being feverishly researched and debated, and who is responsible for their distribution and disposal?

A recent study by the Environment Agency reported “reusable bags” may not produce an environmental saving compared with HDPE bags, having to be used at least 131 times to obtain a comparable impact.  It is estimated carrier bags make up just 0.3% of household waste.  So why should consumers pay?

Yet this tells only half a story.  The EA report has been legally challenged, and the report removed from their website pending internal investigation.  In 1995, a surface dredge between France and Spain revealed over 70% of all waste was bags. This figure during a 2003 study of floating waste in the south east Pacific was 47.6%.  The 2004 International Coastal Clean-up found 7.5% of all coastal litter was bags, some 531,085, and 2.2% of all deceased animals found on beaches being ensnared within bag remnants.

Supermarket Goliaths must keep customers happy, or risk a commercially suicidal loss of customers. Getting ones shopping easily from checkout to kitchen is prerequisite for the happy shopper, yet governmental pressure on supermarkets to reduce HDPE bag distribution has caused them to study this issue carefully, and indeed, act, many retailers producing thinner bags, or with increased recycled or biodegradable content.

Marks & Spencer began charging for bags in 2008 with proceeds donated to environmental projects.  The risk of losing customers mediated by offering free ‘bags for life’ three weeks before ‘free disposable bags’ were withdrawn.  M&S’ resurgence in the grocery sector appears to have suffered little harm as a result, but is this due to the company’s apparent higher class of client, who see the levy as “doing their bit”? An emotive point, which would have socio-economists reaching for their relatively new history books; to insult M&S patrons’ good intentions, or working class morals, yet the majority of retailers have, as yet, overwhelmingly not followed suit. Now governments have begun to react. Italy banned plastic bags on 1st January 2011, and the Welsh Parliament dictate it be unlawful to dispense free plastic bags (of certain specifications) after 1st October 2011.  Retailers must maintain records of bags sold, revenue gained, how revenue is utilised, and publicly display their records, or face fixed penalties.  Others may follow.

“Single use” bag use in the UK rose last year, the finger again being pointed at retailers, yet they are retaliating, backed by the British Retail Consortium, imparting they are facing their responsibilities, and have set high sustainability targets.  It might appear they have, and to answer “who is responsible” may be simpler than initially thought; we all are.  The developed world has evolved a much jaunted “throw away culture”, but bags don’t throw themselves away.  Education, recycling and reuse should be promoted, even if only for that evening stroll.


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