Two types of small paper bags
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From Topshop to Nike to Primark, brown paper bags are back in abundance on the high street. But are they any better for the environment than plastic bags? The Guardian reports

When we are spending more money than we should in tough economic times at least we are being served the perfect item in which to hide our guilty purchases: the discreet paper bag.

The war against plastic bags seems to have been won on the United Kingdom high street this Christmas. Everyone from classy French label APC to the likes of Nike (complete with swoosh), Topshop and even Primark hand out brown paper bags. An armful of paper bags feels so much less trashy than a swaddling of plastic; they recall the classic brown paper groceries bag of old.

So victory for paper bags – they are the children of trees! – in the war against decadent, dolphin-smothering plastic. Except, like most wars, it is far from clear if it has left the world a better place. Wrap, the government-funded company set up to reduce waste, summarises the drawbacks of paper bags: while from a renewable source and biodegradable, compostable and recyclable, they require far more energy to make and transport than plastic, have less re-use potential and produce methane if dumped in landfill.

“Faced with the question of paper or plastic, the answer should always be neither,” says Reuseit.comAccording to a 2007 study (funded by US plastic bag manufacturers), it takes almost four times as much energy to manufacture a paper bag as a plastic bag. Paper-bag manufacture uses 20 times as much water as plastic and paper requires more energy to be recycled.

Cloth bags are far from perfect. An Environment Agency report this yearfound that a resusable cloth bag would have to be taken out 131 times to reduce its environmental impact to that of a single-use plastic bag. And despite all our fretting, plastic bag use has actually risen. Rather than pitching paper against plastic, we really need to change our habits. Apart from banning ourselves from buying more than we can carry loose in our arms, the obvious solution is a tax on all bags, an economic nudge that if we can’t shop less we should at least reuse those bags stuffed under the kitchen sink.

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Dramatic fall in number of plastic bags given out by supermarkets


The Independent reports: The number of “single-use” plastic bags given to customers by leading UK supermarkets has fallen for the fourth year in a row.

 The total has dropped from 10.6 billion in 2006 to 6.1 billion in the year to May, a reduction of 43 per cent, the British Retail Consortium (BRC) said. That compares with a reduction of 37 per cent in the year to May 2009. Over the same period the total weight of material used has more than halved.

The BRC said the figures were “a ringing endorsement” of the voluntary approach taken by supermarkets at a time when sales volumes increased by more than 6 per cent.

To forestall the threat of legislation or a government-imposed bag charge at the checkout, seven of the big stores have made two successive agreements to cut back on plastic bag use. The stores involved are Asda, the Co-operative Group (now incorporating Somerfield), Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Waitrose.


There is no formally agreed a new target, but bag use is still being monitored by the Waste and Resources Action Programme (Wrap). The figure for supermarket distribution of all carrier bags, including reusable bags, has also continued to decline, and the new numbers for 2009/10 show a decline of 41 per cent over 2006 against 35 per cent in 2008/9. But in one accounting measure, a spot-check analysis of bag use during the month of May, the number of single-use bags had increased compared with last year.

In May 2009 the one-month figure was 48 per cent below that of 2006 – just missing the 50 per cent target the supermarkets had set themselves, and so prominently publicised. But this year the “snapshot” May figure for single-use bags was only 45 per cent below that for 2006, suggesting that momentum may be falling.

In general, though, the figures are very positive. “This is a tremendous achievement by supermarkets, customers and staff, especially as between 2006 and 2009 the amount of goods sold by participating retailers grew by over 6 per cent,” the BRC Director-General, Stephen Robertson said.

“The sustained reduction shows that customers are permanently adopting the habit of reusing their bags. The continuous decrease in total annual bag use demonstrates the voluntary approach continues to make good progress.”

He added: “The reduction in bag use is great news, but it’s the halving of the total weight of single-use carrier bags which shows retailers really scoring on the crucial issue of reducing environmental impact. Retailers are working hard on a range of other environmental measures, such as reducing food waste, reducing and redesigning packaging, as well as providing customers with recycling information through the on-pack recycling label.”

Wrap said yesterday that the decrease by 4.5 billion per year in 2006 to 6.5 billion in 2009/10 had reduced the amount of material used by 39,700 tonnes annually.

First introduced by the US in 1957, and into the rest of the world by the late 1960s, plastic bags are now one of the biggest scourges of the throw-away society. Worldwide, the annual total manufactured now probably exceeds a trillion. Billions find their way into the environment, especially the marine environment, where their lack of rapid degradability makes them a persistent and serious threat to marine life. They can now be found in the oceans almost everywhere, from Spitsbergen at latitude 78 degrees North, to the Falkland Islands at 51 degrees South.