“Bags For Life”: Less Plastic & Much Better For The Environment?

Which supermarket do you use: Tesco’s, Sainsbury’s, Morrisons, Waitrose or one of the discount chains such as Aldi? Your choice is probably influenced by a range of factors, especially price, proximity to where you live or work, the layout of the store, the brand style, habit, familiarity and whether you’ve signed up for one of the “loyalty schemes” such as Sainsbury’s “Nectar” or the Tesco Club Card. Whichever one you prefer, do you take a shopping bag with you or do you pay for one at the cash desk?

If it tends to be the latter and you’re a Tesco customer, you might already be aware that the organisation has recently changed its plastic bag policy. After conducting a ten-week trial in three of its stores, in Aberdeen and Dundee (Scotland) and Norwich (East Anglia), it has decided that, from August 28th, it will no longer sell “single use” 5p plastic bags and will replace them instead with “thicker, re-usable bags for life”. These will be made from 94% recycled plastic and cost between 8p – 10p. They will also fall outside the provisions of the plastic bag regulations introduced by the Government on 5th October 2015 and hence mean that the company will not be obliged to pass any of this new income on to “good causes”. Nevertheless, so Tesco insisted to the Daily Telegraph’s Consumer Affairs Editor, Kate Morley, on May 24, it “would not profit from the bags and would continue to support environmental charities”.

In effect, Tesco is following the example of Sainsburys who, after the new law was implemented – as the Independent correspondent, Hazel Sheffield, has pointed out – “did away with single-use plastic bags in favour of a sturdier orange bag that can be recycled and exchanged for a new one when it becomes damaged”. This costs 5p and – as with Tesco’s new “bag for life” – is not covered by the 5th October 2015 regulations. The Guardian has reported that just 1p of the 5p goes to charity (“lower than some other retailers”) and that Sainsburys say they can’t confirm how much they give to charity because the information is “commercially sensitive”.

As the Gov.UK website emphasises, the regulations apply to all retailers (not only to supermarkets) who have 250 or more employees: “Smaller businesses can also charge on a voluntary basis if they wish”. The levy does not apply to shops in airports, on board trains, airplanes or ships, if the bag contains items such as raw meat and fish, prescription medicines, uncovered razor blades, seeds, bulbs and flowers or if it is made of paper. Furthermore, as The Independent commented with some scepticism when the scheme was first introduced, “Despite government guidance that the money raised should be donated to good causes, there is no legal requirement for stores to hand over the cash to charities. Retailers can deduct costs for administration and staff training from the money they collect”.

On 21st July, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) released statistics showing that “the seven main retailers issued 83% fewer plastic bags in 2016-2017 compared to the calendar year 2014”. This works out (estimates letsrecycle.com) as a reduction from 7 billion to 2 billion , equivalent to each person in the UK population using around 25 bags during 2016, compared to around 140 bags a year before the charge was applied”.

According to the DEFRA survey, the 168 retailers who provided data had donated over £66 million to good causes. However, the Sunday Times journalists Helen Croydon and Jonathan Leake indicated, in an article on 13th August titled “Charities Barely See 5p Carrier Bag Cash”, that they were unconvinced by these figures. On the contrary, that although “the 5p charge on plastic bags cost shoppers £105 million last year, only £25 million went to named charities”. They noted that fifty firms , among them Iceland, Argos, Halfords and River Island, all declared that that net proceeds did go to charity but opted not to disclose specific details.

Also, that others deduct substantial costs: For example, in the year ending April 2017, the music chain HMV earned £135,000 from the sale of 3.2 million bags but kept £60,000 in costs; WH Smith raised £206,000 from 4 million bags but retained £76,000. More generously: Tescos- £32 million from 637 million bags, donated £23 million; Sainsburys- £2.6 million from 52 million bags,donated £2.1 million. The main problem with a “bag for life”, Dominic Hogg of the environmental consultancy Eunomia told the journalists, is that it weighs three times as much as a single use bag “ which means using three times as much plastic”.

Sarah Coles, a commentator for AOL UK Money, has been more inclined to believe in the retailers’ good intentions: On 18th July, she asserted that Iceland, Asda, Tesco, Morrisons and Waitrose now all “tend to focus their charitable giving on local or environmental causes”. Among others: “B&Q passes on the full 5p to “Children in Need”; M&S sends half the 5p to local charities and community causes chosen by individual stores and the other 50% to national charities such as the Marine Conservation Society and Macmillan Cancer Support; Aldi donates money from the sale of its carrier bags to an educational partnership with the RSPB (Royal Society For The Protection Of Birds”).

On 29th August, The Guardian reported that, the previous day “the world’s toughest law aimed at reducing plastic pollution” had come into effect in Kenya, where supermarkets have been handing out an estimated 100 million bags each year: Anyone producing,selling or even using plastic bags risks imprisonment of up to four years or fines of £31,000. The justification for such an extreme measure, in the opinion of Habib el-Habrir, who works for UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme) in Kenya, is that “If we continue like this, by 2050, we will have more plastic in the oceans than fish”.

Meanwhile, Andrew Pendleton, Head of Campaigns at Friends of The Earth, has endorsed the attention “now being given to the millions of non-recyclable coffee cups that go to landfills as well as to the oversized boxes and excess packaging which are the by-products of online shopping”.



Filed under: Healthcare, Society | Posted on September 4th, 2017 by Colin D Gordon

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