Bob Gordon on what behaviour has real environmental impact
The media is fixated with carrier bags. They have become the symbol of a wasteful society, and there are increasing calls for something to be done to address ‘our wastefulness’.
I don’t disagree, but let’s get it in perspective: it’s a carrier bag! The environmental impacts of the products and packaging in the bag are significantly greater, not to mention the effects of driving to the shops, cooking the food, managing the resultant waste and so on. Environmentally, the huge over-emphasis on carrier bags is a side-issue. Single-use carrier bags make up less than a third of 1% of household waste.
Refrigeration contributes up to a third of a supermarket’s carbon emissions. But I had to tell the Carbon Trust the other day that the amount of time I can dedicate to this issue is limited because I’ll be distracted by having to co-ordinate the retailer response to the Welsh consultation on charging for bags.
“Carrier bags are a side issue: single-use bags make up a tiny fraction of household waste”
Retailers have helped customers to halve carrier bag use in three years using voluntary means. Sadly, this has not been sufficient to satisfy the Welsh Assembly. Not only does it want to go further and faster than anyone else, but it wants to be seen to be doing so. It believes that a compulsory charge on bags is the best way of doing that.
But independent studies by AEA Technology, the Environment Agency and Green Cities California have found that single-use plastic bags are not the worst option: paper bags hold that accolade in all cases. These studies found that the important issue is re-use. A cotton bag has an environmental impact around 135 times that of a single-use plastic bag. That’s a lot of re-use. You would pretty much need to use the bag once a week every week for three years to make it worthwhile. This rises to six years if you re-use your plastic bag even once.
I believe voluntary action is the best way forward. It allows retailers to adopt methods that work best for their customers, while taking consumers on a journey of education and engagement in environmental issues.
But if Wales is absolutely determined to go ahead with charging, why 7p a bag? Certainly it is high enough to make you remember to bring your own bag next time, especially if you have to use a few of them. But is it too much? M&S opted for 5p, the Co-Operative 1p. Other retailers have achieved huge reductions with incentives and information.
But I would advise caution in going for 7p because ‘bags for life’ are only 10p. If I’d forgotten my bags, I’d buy the bag for life: it holds more and I could re-use it, so it’s a better buy. But then I might collect a bag for life every time I shop, and end up just throwing it away or using it as a bin liner. Given that the environmental impact of a bag for life is around eight times greater than a normal carrier bag, it makes for a pretty environmentally damaging bin liner.
What we don’t want to see is each single-use carrier bag replaced with a new bag for life each time people reach the till. If the issue is environmental impact, we need to be cautious about setting the charge at a level that distorts the incentive for people to take lower impact bags when, for whatever reason, they don’t have a reusable bag with them.
Bob Gordon is head of environment at the British Retail Consortium