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single use plastic bag

“TAKE IT OR LEVY IT”: Why companies need to consider their plastic bag alternatives

Posted in Circular economy
On 24 May 2021
By Roger Wright

Since the introduction of the 5p single-use plastic bag levy in 2015 by the Government, over 15.6 billion fewer of these  bags have been used. In the 2018 Resources and Waste Strategy, it set out plans to bring about more change in consumer behaviour and incentivise customers to buy products with lower environmental impacts. Now the charge is being increased to 10p and rolled out across all UK retailers. This increased focus on the sustainability of plastic packaging, as well as the proposed plastic packaging tax, has led to a rise in brands looking for alternative solutions. It is vital for companies to take time to research these products, make sure they are sustainable and will decrease our impact on the environment.

In the short term, the 5p increase will remove unnecessary plastic from our waste stream, but to reduce our long-term impact on the environment, we need to carefully assess the environmental credentials of what replaces this packaging. Supermarkets used the levy to introduce ‘bags-for-life’, which has created a 90% decrease in single-use plastic bags. Whilst supermarkets were right to do this, bags for life are now being used in the same way, ending up littering our streets and our countryside. This is just as bad for the environment.

What alternatives are available?

When thinking about packaging materials, many people hear about plastic and immediately assume it’s a non-sustainable packaging choice, but the reality is that the UK’s capacity for recycling plastic is growing with businesses such as Biffa investing heavily in this area, as well as focusing on developing new innovative recycling techniques, which can make plastic highly sustainable after all.

As well as researching options, it is key for brands to consult external experts to ensure they are getting the best advice possible on sustainable packaging. Take glass for example- whilst it might seem like a more sustainable option to a plastic milk bottle, as it is heavier, it creates more emissions when it is both made and transported. Milk bottles are the perfect example in this case where plastic is a better packaging solution than glass. Customers also need to ensure their solutions are long term to avoid issues like the bag for life being disposed of in the same way as the single-use plastic bag.

Two retail brands trying to come up with a sustainable alternative to a plastic bag for life are Morrisons and Co-op. Morrisons with a pricier paper bag for life and the Co-op progressing down its compostable path of prevention.

It is easy to make a snap decision on whether these routes are sustainable or not, but it is worth considering your own choice of material depending on where you are shopping, because the purchase of a bag should not just be about a choice between plastic or paper, compostable or keeper. When planning a big shop, it is easier to remember your reusable bag. A convenience store on the other hand, is often used for a quick top up. For those of us who do forget our bags on either different mission, we need a better option.

Could both these retailers therefore actually be right about this?

Plastic life cycle evangelists will disagree and demand a bag with the smallest environmental footprint, but

context trumps carbon when you’ve done the due diligence on a bag’s origin and its end of life. A paper bag for example should never be introduced if it’s so small or flimsy that it can’t be used again. However, a bigger reusable paper bag that’s also recyclable is perfect for a retailer encouraging better behaviours.

By contrast if you entered a convenience store empty handed, you do not want the unnecessary expense of any bag for life or another single use carrier to stuff behind the sink. Why not buy a bag for 10p that actually does something useful and can be composted, caddie lined or used again?

In the end of course, the best bag of all is the one you already own and remember to take with you. However, there is real merit in companies taking time to consider what alternatives to plastic they are going to introduce. As we have seen with plastic bags, quick wins are not necessarily always the best solution.