Single carrier bag use across the UK overall is down by 40% compared with five years ago but may be on the increase again in England and Scotland, according to the latest figures from WRAP.
While across the UK, from a baseline taken in 2006, the general trend for single bag use among supermarket customers has been downward, over the past year it may be on the increase.
Some 40% fewer thin single-use bags were taken by supermarket customers in 2010 than in 2006, when usage was first measured. This is a reduction from 10.7 billion to 6.4 billion single-use bags.
However, while the overall trend measured over the past five years is down there appeared to be an increase of 5%, or 0.3 billion single-use bags, in 2010. The picture is slightly confused because the comparative time periods overlap – June 2009 to May 2010 against January to December 2010.
The rise is attributable to England and Scotland. Single bag usage in England rose from 5 billion to 5.3 billion and in Scotland over the same period from 540 million to 590 million. Meanwhile, single carrier bag usage in Wales and Northern Ireland decreased from 353 million to 329 million and 189 million to 163 million respectively.
However, these national figures are “indicative only” and cannot be definitive due to changes in retailer reporting.
The Welsh Government believes its 7% drop in single bag usage shows that bag charging is the best policy to reduce usage. Environment minister John Griffiths said: “Here in Wales the imminent introduction of our carrier bag charge is ensuring that people in Wales are still thinking about and talking about the problem of carrier bags.
“They know about the environmental and litter issues associated with carrier bags and they know that from October they will have to remember to reuse their bags to avoid a 5p charge. The charge is also encouraging Welsh shoppers to get into the habit of taking their own bags with them when they go shopping.”
Meanwhile, the British Retail Consortium argued that it was unfair to focus on the rise, particularly as it was set a background of an increase in supermarket sales.
British Retail Consortium head of environment Bob Gordon said: “These figures show retailers and customers are changing their habits without the need for compulsory bag bans or charges. In the face of sales growth it was inevitable that year-on-year reductions would be hard to maintain and the overall numbers remain the sort of result other environmental campaigns can only dream of.”
He warned: “Retailers are pursuing much more significant environmental issues such as energy use, waste and the impact of the products people buy. An obsession with carrier bags must not get in the way of these bigger green goals.”
Northern Ireland environment minister Alex Attwood argued in favour of a bag charge – due to be introduced in April 2013 – and pointed out that sales growth had not resulted in increased single bag use in his country. He said: “In Northern Ireland, even with a sales growth since 2006 of more than four times the UK average, the number of bags handed out by major supermarkets in 2010 fell by 13.8% from the previous year. This equates to 26 million fewer bags in circulation.”
Thetotal weight of thin plastic bags used has almost halved since 2006 and the amount of new material being used is down 61% as retailers use an increasing proportion of recycled plastic in the manufacture of bags.
Overall a total of 37% fewer bags of all types – including cotton, jute and ‘bags for life’ – were being used between 2006 and 2010. But again there was a slight rise in 2010 of 6% or 0.3 billion bags.