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10p plastic bag charge from today: are ‘bags for life’ good for the planet?

Which? investigates the most sustainable ways to carry your shopping home

10p plastic bag charge from today: are ‘bags for life’ good for the planet?

All shops will have to charge at least 10p for plastic bags from today, as the 5p levy doubles. But will it help the environment?

Since the 5p plastic bag levy was introduced, the number of single-use plastic bags produced in the country has shrunk dramatically.

Instead, most supermarkets now sell reusable ‘bags for life’ made from thicker, more durable plastic.

Despite the bags’ potential to be reused, some people are worried that bags for life are often only being used once, creating more problems than they’re solving.

Here, we ask an expert about the most sustainable way to transport your weekly shop, and take a closer look at the kinds of bags supermarkets are selling.

Which bags are best?

Currently, no supermarkets sell single-use plastic bags in their stores. Most have replaced these with a variety of bags made from different materials, including thicker, reusable plastic.

So which type of material is best? According to Helen Bird, strategic engagement manager at sustainability charity Wrap, the actual material might be less important than you think.

‘When you start looking at the environmental impact of bags, in a way it doesn’t matter so much what they’re made of,’ she told Which?. ‘The really important thing in order to reduce the environmental impact is to make sure that they are reused.’

It would seem that not everyone is reusing their bags though, which is why the Co-op is replacing its reusable plastic ‘bags for life’ with home-compostable bags that double as caddy liners for food-waste bins. Is this the future?

Yes and no. Giving your carrier bag a second life as a food-caddy liner is better than putting a plastic one into landfill, but not all councils offer a food-waste collection service.

Also, compostable bags don’t break down into the earth quickly and simply. ‘The difficulty with compostable bags is that they are only composted under very specific conditions,’ says Bird.

Co-op's compostable carrier bag

Are paper bags better than plastic?

Morrisons plans to remove all plastic bags, including bags for life, from its stores by 2022. It says it will replace them with reusable bags made from other materials, including durable paper bags.

‘Everybody can recycle paper at home,’ Bird says. ‘However, people are less likely to reuse a paper bag than they are to reuse a bag made of other materials.’

Bird notes that this research was carried out with more ‘papery’ bags than Morrisons’ new bags, which are ‘very much designed to be a bag-for-life equivalent’. So it’s possible this won’t be the case with them.

As for cloth bags, Bird says research has shown that you need to reuse them more than 120 times in order for them to have less environmental impact than a single-use carrier bag. So reusing bags really is key.

Has the plastic bag levy worked?

Making supermarkets charge for carrier bags was never going to save the planet on its own, although it has had an impact.

‘Overall, plastic carrier bags represent a really small proportion of plastic packaging,’ says Helen Bird. ‘So they are a drop in the ocean. But clearly if they get into the ocean, that is a terrible drop.’

Still, since the 5p bag charge was introduced, progress has been made. Wrap found that 94% of people now own a reusable bag, and that the percentage of people buying bags at the till has halved.

‘But what we have also noticed, and particularly Greenpeace has been collating data on what we would call “so-called bags for life”, is that the number of those bags that have been placed on the market has actually increased slightly,’ says Helen Bird.

Greenpeace data shows that supermarkets distributed 1.5bn bags for life in 2019. That’s almost 57 bags per UK household, according to the campaign group, suggesting that most people are not really using them ‘for life’.

This means about a quarter of people are buying a new bag for life every time they go shopping, according to Bird.

Time will tell if raising the charge to 10p puts a stop to this. But campaigners have suggested that supermarkets should be incentivising customers to reuse bags through rewards, not just charging people to buy them.

Can you recycle ‘bags for life’?

Supermarkets say their plastic bags for life are ‘recyclable’, but it’s not usually as simple as putting them in your recycling bin at home.

‘Local authorities tend not to collect plastic bags and wrapping,’ says Bird. But you do have options. Many supermarkets will take old bags for life back from you for recycling, and replace them free of charge if you need a new one.

At the moment, not every supermarket branch offers this recycling service, but some chains have announced that they will make it more widely available.

What are supermarket carrier bags made of?

As Helen Bird says, reusing bags is crucial, and we shouldn’t be buying them regularly.

That said, shoppers are currently inundated with choice when it comes to the kinds of bags available at the checkout. So if you’re in the market for a supermarket carrier to use again and again (and again and again), here’s a breakdown of the kinds of bags you can buy at different superstores.

We’ve also listed whether online deliveries come bagged or unbagged.

Aldi

Types of bags

  • Compostable bags – 10p These are biodegradable and suitable for home composting.
  • Paper bags – 15p Sourced from ‘sustainably managed forests’. Can carry 11kg of groceries.
  • ‘Eco-loop’ bags – 20p Reusable bags made from recycled plastic, with most of the plastic coming from in-store waste.
  • Woven ‘bags for life’ – 49p

Online deliveries

Aldi click-and-collect orders come in ‘compostable’ tray liners. Orders from Deliveroo come in paper bags. You can return click-and-collect tray liners when you pick up your order.

Aldi's paper bag

Asda

Types of bags

  • Bags for life – 20p Made from 90% recycled plastic.
  • Large shopper/bottle bags – 60p/50p Made from woven plastic.
  • Jute bags – £1.50 Made from jute with woven plastic side panels.
  • Freezer bags – £2 Made from woven plastic with aluminium foil liner.

Online deliveries

Asda’s online deliveries are bagless, although meat and fish are placed in single-use bags.

A selection of Asda bags

The Co-op

Types of bags

  • Compostable carrier – 10p
  • Reusable woven carrier – 50p 
  • Reusable large woven carrier – 70p
  • Reusable foldable bag – £1

The reusable bags are made from recycled plastic.

Online deliveries

The Co-op’s online deliveries will use its compostable carriers once they’ve been rolled out.

Iceland

Types of bags

  • Paper bags – 15p Made from ‘sustainably sourced’ reusable FSC paper.
  • Plastic bags for life – 15p Made from reusable plastic.
  • Jute bags – £1 Plastic-free.
  • Freezer bags – £1.50 Plastic.

Iceland has 50 stores that are plastic-bag free, so only the non-plastic bags are sold at these branches.

Online deliveries

Online orders arrive bagged, although Iceland didn’t tell us what kind of bags are used. It plans to trial doorstep bag recycling later this year.

Lidl

Types of bags

  • Plastic bags for life – 20p Made from 90% recycled content.
  • Heavy-duty carrier bag for life – 55p Made from 70% recycled plastic.
  • Jute bag – £1.29
  • Cotton bag – £1.49
  • Woven cooler bag – £1.75 Made from ‘mixed material’, including plastic.

M&S

Types of bags

  • Bag for life – 15p Made from 100% recycled plastic from M&S’s own waste.

Morrisons

Types of bags

  • Reusable paper bag – 30p 
  • Reusable woven bag – 75p Made from plastic.
  • Reusable jute bag – £2.50 With plastic lining.
  • Reusable cotton bag – £1.50 
  • Reusable pouch bag – £1 Made from recycled PET plastic bottles.

Online deliveries

Orders from Morrisons have been bagless since April 2021. Orders fulfilled by Ocado will be delivered in bags (see below).

Ocado

Types of bags

  • Recycled plastic bags – 10p Refunded when handed back. These bags are not the thick ‘bags for life’ that other stores provide. In effect, they are single-use for the customer, although Ocado makes it easy to recycle them.

Online deliveries

Ocado deliveries are always bagged. You can hand these bags back to your delivery driver for 10p each, and they’ll be recycled into new Ocado bags.

You can also hand in plastic bags from other supermarkets, meaning there could be Ocado bags out there made from Sainsbury’s and Tesco bags.

Sainsbury’s

Types of bags

  • Bags for life – 20p Made from 100% recycled plastic.

Online deliveries

Online orders come bagless. You can hand in plastic bags you’ve picked up in-store to your driver for recycling.

Tesco

Types of bags

  • Bags for life – 20p 100% recycled plastic.

Online deliveries

These come with no bags.

Tesco's bag for life

Waitrose

Types of bags

  • Bags for life – 10p 100% recycled plastic.

Online deliveries

These are bagless by default, but you can ask for plastic bags for an 80p flat fee. Old bags can be taken for recycling.

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