An argument against plastic bags. Especially free ones.

I don’t often climb on a bandwagon and, as you know, this blog is normally for general cheerful waffle,. However, a post has been brewing for a while, prompted initially by one that Blue Witch wrote (BW, if you send me the link I’ll put it up), saying that she felt too much fuss was being made about plastic bags, and it’s here now because of Diamond Geezer’s grumble today. Blue Witch is concerned that supermarkets will make yet more profit – well indeed, but none of us is naive enough to think that we’re not being charged for our ‘free’ plastic bags in higher prices already.

This is a pamphlet that Al wrote, having done a good deal of research, most of it on the internet and, although it’s long, I reproduce it in full. I appreciate that most of you won’t have time to read it all, but please do take away the message and try to take your own bags when you go shopping.

Over 95% of Britain’s plastic carrier bags are imported from China, Malaysia or Thailand. Once picked up by a shopper each carrier bag is used, on average, for only 12 minutes.

Approximately 90% are then discarded and buried in landfill sites.

Of the 10% which are not immediately thrown away, the vast majority are used just once more as a bin liner and so are thrown away on their next use.

The few that are recycled (approximately 0.5%) can only be made into such low-grade plastic that they are almost exclusively made into new bin liners, so end up in the landfill anyway.

So-called “degradable” plastic bags have been introduced by many supermarkets implying that they will be less damaging to the environment. In fact it has now been proven that these bags can actually do more harm than good.


What’s wrong with these “degradable” bags? Don’t they break down in landfill?

The “degradable” bags are identical to the original carrier bags but with extra additives, the toxic metal compound cobalt being one of them. These make the bag more brittle causing it to fragment into small pieces. The extent of the damage these fragments cause to marine life has become increasingly evident. It has been discovered that there are six times more plastic fragments floating in parts of the Pacific Ocean than there is plankton.

Isn’t this a bit pointless? After all, it’s only a carrier bag.

The problem has arisen because of the vast scale of the situation. Around 1.3 trillion are manufactured annually and it takes an estimated 2%* of the world’s oil production to make them. The fact that all this effort and waste is going into making something that is actually “only a carrier bag” is the whole point of this campaign.

So why ban them completely? It seems a bit drastic.

The fact is that plastic bags are actually not necessary at all. They are easily replaced by simple solutions that have always existed. People have only become dependent on plastic bags in the last few years and in many ways the disposable carrier bag is symbolic of our modern throwaway culture.

If the problem is so serious why doesn’t the government do something about it?

Many governments around the world are doing something about it. To name a few, Australia has banned plastic bags from all superstores, Bangladesh has banned them entirely. Ireland has had a “plastic bag tax” for several years and France has given intention to enforce an outright ban in 2010. The British government is reluctant to act. As ever, their policy is to allow market forces to dictate progress. Unfortunately the four supermarkets which control over 80% of Britain’s grocery market have stated that they are not obliged to consider environmental damage in their decision to supply plastic bags.

So what’s the alternative? I can’t put everything in my pockets.

Shops participating in this campaign will stock alternatives for customers who don’t bring their own carriers. These are usually recycled boxes, paper bags, reuseable fabric or string bags and 100% biodegradeable cornstarch bags.

What are these new 100% biodegradeable cornstarch bags? Are they really flimsy?

Cornstarch bags look like plastic, feel like plastic and retain water and meat juices like plastic. However, unlike plastic they are completely compostable and leave no toxic residue after they have broken down

If these cornstarch bags are so environmentally friendly why don’t all shops just switch to giving those away instead?

The fact is that, although cornstarch bags are very environmentally friendly for disposal, they use more fossil fuels to manufacture than a standard plastic bag. For this reason, simply swapping from one bag to another may help solve one problem but would create a whole different crisis of a similar scale. For this reason one of the main principles of this campaign is that all shoppers are charged a small price for every new bag as an incentive not to use them.

With those reuseable cotton carriers, isn’t the cotton industry even more environmentally unfriendly because of the intensive farming and child labour involved?

This is a worry, but is avoidable if shoppers ask questions before buying cotton bags. Fair Trade organic cotton from sustainable plantations is available and unfortunately this is always reflected in the cost. Cheap cotton bags are often seen but are usually from countries like China which have none of the expensive overheads caused by standard pollution controls and providing even the most basic human rights for its citizens.

If I spend £20 or more in a shop, surely I can expect the retailer to at least pay for the bag?

The intention of this campaign is to focus the public’s attention on the carrier bag and the environmental cost of them. A situation like this makes it no less relevant.
The actual purchase of a carrier bag is intended to stand out in a shopper’s mind so as to provide more incentive to plan ahead and be prepared.

Isn’t this just an excuse for retailers to cash in on the new fashion for ‘going green’ by making money out of bags which used to be given away?

Retailers in the campaign are advised to sell all basic bags, both fabric and cornstarch, at cost price. The argument for this is that they never used to make a profit from supplying the plastic bags so it would appear rather unscrupulous to try to make money via the environmentally friendly bags.

What’s the big deal? Banning a few bags is pretty meaningless when you consider the scale of pollution worldwide.

This is not a broad campaign covering all aspects of global pollution. Banning plastic bags will not stop pollution any more than saving a polar bear will stop global warming. This is a campaign about one problem with a simple solution. Disposable plastic bags are a shocking waste of resources and a simple change of habits is all that is required to make a drastic difference.


If you have read this far and want to know more, I recommend you start with Modbury’s website. This is the Devon town that was the first in the country to go plastic bag free.
Another link to a New York Times article on the Irish ban on free bags.
Here’s BW’s views on the same subject. Scroll down to December 19th (though read all the rest on the way, because she’s always worth reading). She has linked to a commercial website which completely disagrees with what I say, although notice what it’s called, and you’ll appreciate it’s to be read with caution.

For example, it says that 80% of people reuse plastic bags in the home. Two things – first, that’s 80% of people reusing some bags. It does not say 80% of bags are reused. Second, that nearly always means using them to put rubbish in, before putting it in the bin. I wrap rubbish in newspaper, because that’s biodegradable. It’s rarely (Al would say ‘never) actually necessary to use a plastic bag at all.

Another link –‘paper or plastic?’ – well, I agree with the article, which says ‘neither’.

If you have a related link, let me know in the comments or by email and I’ll add it. Of course, I’m willing to link to posts on both sides of the argument, as long as they’re not abusive.

*This includes all plastic wrapping, not just carrier bags.

28 comments on “An argument against plastic bags. Especially free ones.

  1. Imperatrix

    Hello Z!

    I know I haven’t been here in a while, and here I am barging in with opinons! Great research by Al, that pamphlet is really detailed. I may send a link to the Consort (as he teaches Environmental Science and I send him all the eco links I find).

    The New York Times had an article a month or so ago on the Irish experience with taxes and plastic bags. You can read it here:

    In essence, plastic bag usage went down to practically *zero* after the across-the-board tax. That’s pretty amazing, isn’t it?

    I believe that the best way to get people to change their ways is to have them pay the real cost of items, rather than the subsidized, free-trade crap price we are used to.

    Now, since I’m being all barge-in-y and rude, have you got any tasty treats?

    *opens fridge and peers in*

  2. Z

    He put a lot of work in to it; once he started his research, he was shocked by the wastefulness and damage done by plastic. I’ll add your link to the post.

    Tasty treats – hm, it’s all plain yoghurt and rice cakes around here these days. I’ve got a pot of leek soup on the stove though, drop in in an hour or so…

    Mono-z, you think shopping trolleys have gone away? They’re still being used in Yagnub!

  3. The Boy

    Nice article.

    I’ve been a long proponent of a standard charge on plastic bags. I remember nagging our MP about it at a BBQ a few years ago. Didn’t do much good, he was a conservative… Its a simple solution to change behavior, and if the supermarkets improve their margins a bit, its a small small price to pay. Maybe they’ll pass a tiny bit on to farmers…

  4. Z

    Conservative with a big and small c, I suppose. Well, if they get in next time, Cameron is always promoting himself as a big ecologist, it’ll be interesting to see if he means it.

  5. Blue Witch

    My links (and the one to the ‘Myths’ article I mentioned before in my 19th December 2007 post) are in DG’s comments.

    It would be very hard to find a more environmentally aware and active person than me, who is constantly picking other people up on wastefulness, but I still stand by my previous points.

    I think there has to be a balance on bags – personally I’d like to see the problem dealt with by supermarkets offering a choice: plastic or paper, or 1p off every pound you spend on shopping if you used your shopping if you used your own bags (Sainsbury’s used to offer 1p back but stopped it).

  6. Z

    The comment with the link was after my comment, so I hadn’t seen it. I trust you appreciate me, darling, I had to go to DG, then comments, then click on your link, then copy that.

    I’m not keen on overuse of paper bags either. It’s all waste. If one really thinks whether a bag is needed and only uses one if absolutely necessary, a huge amount of waste would be eliminated. Sadly, most people don’t think, and they don’t care what resources are used as long as they salve their conscience with recycling something.

  7. Imperatrix

    Paper bags are actually just as environmentally bad as plastic bags. They’re made from virgin growth.

    Here’s one of many places that discuss this:

    Also, here we get 5 cents (probably similar to the 1 p mentioned) per bag that we bring. We shop once a week for a family of 4 big eaters. We use about 5 bags per visit. Now, I don’t know about how far 5 p would take one in the UK, but 25 cents here barely covers a call at a phone booth! (candy bars cost 65-75 cents, bottled water/soda costs 1.25, etc.)

    That’s not much of an incentive, even for the poor.

  8. jAMiE

    Hello Z…i appreciate the time and effort that you took to post this. I try to use my cloth bags every time i shop, though i am guilty of forgetting them i do make the effort. My grocery store pays me a few cents for each bag (cloth) that i use, which helps to pay for the bags themselves. Well worth it…i hope more people catch on.

    Again, thank you for this post!

  9. Blue Witch

    The supermarket/plastic bag issue is a smokescreen to deflect consumers’ attention from where it ought to be – on the supermarkets for over-packaging things. Now reducing THAT sort of waste would be a hige step forward, and would make a real difference, without inconveniencing people.

    If you live in a city and have to walk home carting shopping (as DG does) you need soething substantial (which doesn’t fit easily into a city-dwellers’ pcoket), or if it’s raining, things get wet in paper or cloth. Some things (eg packs of paper, other goods that would be spoiled by water) really do need protection. Those of us with cars/cycle panniers don’t, I think, appreciate how hard shopping without bags it is for town-dwellers who don’t carry rucksacks etc.

  10. Three Legged Cat

    It seems to me that the biggest problem is that just about everything is overpackaged – such as the tins and jars I seem to keep seeing with an outer coating of shrinkwrapped plastic. (Why???) Of course some of that excess packaging could be reduced if people are prepared to make a little bit of effort to take shopping bags with them.

    If I’m going shopping on foot I much prefer to take my unattractive fabric shopping bags with me – plastic ones invariably seem to split and deposit half my shopping on the pavement!

    The trouble is there doesn’t seem to be a “right” choice: do I buy the locally produced fruit and veg that my local supermarket now stocks (even though it is all pre-packed into plastic bags), or do I support my friendly local greengrocer, who thinks I’m mad, but lets me fill a basket (and then shopping bag) with loose veg and fruit, bypassing his convenient little plastic bags? The trouble is, at this time of year all the food at local greengrocer is from the opposite side of the planet. So which is better/worse? Do I reduce my consumption of packaging or of food miles?

  11. Monozygote

    Well, shopping trolleys are very much associated with old ladies still. Although I do see some modern people with them sometimes. Obviously, they’re only relevant to this debate if you’re doing your shopping on foot, which most people aren’t.

    I think re-using the bags we’ve got is a good starting point, and also, I wonder does Al know anything about bin-liners? What’s the eco-position on these?

  12. Z

    Thanks, Jamie – we all need to do our best and accept that nobody’s perfect…not even me (!)

    BW, I’m not disagreeing about overpackaging, but I have bags that can perfectly well deal with walking home in the rain. I’ve done it plenty of times. I have seen plenty of people load their cars with a dozen or more plastic bags, when they could well keep a couple of cardboard boxes in the cars and load their trolleys straight into them. DG made the point that he was caught out without any bags, which is fair enough, but he also said that he is not prepared to carry bags during the day to go shopping on the way home.

    Monoz, one young woman had quite a sparky purple three-wheeler trolley, which I rather admired. The old ladies have Sholleys (sp?). which are splendid and have a pocket for a purse.

    Bin liners. Al is awfully anti-plastic, nowadays. I’ll ask him. We have wheely-bins and I bung everything in and close the lid. I don’t use bin-liners any more. I wash out the bins when they need it. And wrap the messy stuff in newspaper.

  13. Z

    Three legged cat, I didn’t mean to leave you out – I share your quandary. Mostly, I buy local stuff, but I ate a tomato from the Canaries today, and some sweet potato and a banana yesterday. Tonight’s spinach was Italian. On the other hand, the leek, potato, carrot and onion were local. I enjoy the varied diet that modern life brings me (the wine was Australian, BTW, which was worst of all), while knowing that I fall short of what I could do at every step.

    I’m not judging and I’m not preaching – I’m only wanting to ask people to think about what they choose to do.

  14. Imperatrix

    Also, if one composts, then that significantly reduces the amount of messiness in the trash cans.

    When we have to choose between local and organic, we choose local. In general, the fuel miles really kill any positive points you might get otherwise.

    Another point: ship fuel is *incredibly* efficient, so anything that travels by ship is way better than anything that travels (mostly) by truck. I recall reading an article somewhere (I can try to track it down) that in England, it is better to eat NZ lamb than Irish (?) lamb. This is because of the fuel issue, as well as the fact that the “more local” lamb was raised in huge pens (a la US factory farm), unlike the NZ, more free-range, lamb.

    What this all boils down to is: Z, drink your Australian wine and feel no compunction about it!

    *raises a glass*

  15. Z

    Like Blue Witch, we compost everything possible, and the dog and the chickens also eat leftovers.

    The balance between locally-grown out-of-season veg and imported shipped freight is hard to call, but I tend to not worry too much if it’s shipped rather than air-freighted. Not sure about the fresh spinach. It was tasty though.

  16. hey bartender

    I can’t help but feel that the crux of many people’s argument is the convenience issue. And if you aren’t willing to even try, then you shouldn’t bother with the argument at all. It’s just that you aren’t willing.
    I also don’t buy the whole “now the store is just saving more on the plastic bags and soaking you for the cloth ones” argument. I have cloth bags that I bought from the grocer’s (for a dollar each). I can’t possibly fill more than four or five of these, even on a major shopping trip, so as long as I remember them, I will never have to buy any more. They have held up well. I just leave them in the car and use them at every store. If we all wait around for corporations to start reducing their waste before we agree to reduce ours, what are we accomplishing? I agree that everything is over-packaged, but I don’t agree that we shouldn’t each do what we can just because the big guys aren’t taking the lead.

  17. Z

    Blue Witch, in her post, made it clear that she takes her own bags when shopping; it’s that she thinks that putting the onus on us rather than supermarkets is missing the point. We’re not disagreeing about the principle, only the detail.

    I think you’ve got it right, bartender. I happen to be playing some of your music Right Now, by the way. And I’ve also bought CDs and will buy more. thanks for the introduction.

  18. Honey

    most big supermarkets here in Belgium have a ban, so yes we have shoppers in the back of the car, mini rolled up bags in our hand bags and if you are stuck there is always a sturdy alternative to buy at the shop. I like it, just when I’m looking after the dog every now and then… dog poop.. I need bags for that right? Whats the alternative, and no I’m not leaving it on the street, or putting a nappy on him!

  19. Z

    Good point, Honey. I could suggest carrying a couple of tissues and a sheet of newspaper, but frankly, like you, I’d use a plastic bag. But a small one, not a carrier bag. Unless you have a very big dog, of course…

  20. Ivy

    It`s ok for us to all give up plastic and carrier bags – which I`m trying to do….. but, as I wrote in a blog post the other day…. what about all the plastic shrink wrapping manufacturers use instead of using the good old cardboard box! Surely they should be encouraged to go back to using that type of packaging.

  21. Z

    I completely agree, Ivy, and once we’ve all put ourselves to a certain amount of inconvenience to eschew plastic bags, we’ll be on high moral ground to press the manufacturers further. I wrote about bags because I’d got Al’s facts to hand and because, most of the time, it’s so easy to change the habit of using them.

  22. luckyzmom

    Thanks for addressing this issue. For many years I have been refusing plastic bags for an item or two that I can easily carry out to the car and I joke that I am saving little plastic men! In some areas of the country, some stores have bins where you can put used plastic bags to be recycled and we did that before moving to this state where they don’t. So, we save them and donate them to our library(where they offer them for carrying your books out) and to Thrift stores. Doing away with them all together and using reusable conveyances is, of course, preferrable. I also decided I would do something about all the paper bags we had saved up and kept them in the trunk of my car. Alas and alack, I would seldom remember to take them into the store with me. After reading your post and all the comments I will be rolling out the cart to my car sans any bags, if caught forgetting again. Every bit helps. Thanks for posting on this subject.


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