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Let’s Get Rid of Single-Use Carrier Bags

This month, we’re exploring some of the ways in which we can cut down on single-use plastic. We’ve already had a look at chewing gum and the teabag. Today, we turn our attention to the carrier bag.

This undeniably useful commodity is typically made of polyethylene, a synthetic polymer created from the petroleum-derived hydrocarbon, ethylene (C2H4).

The lightweight plastic carrier bag was invented in 1959 by Swedish engineer Sten Gustaf Thulin, intended as a reusable, environmentally friendly alternative to single-use paper bags. Thulin reasoned that the plastic carrier bag would reduce the felling of trees. Raoul Thulin, the inventor’s son, said, “To my dad, the idea that people would simply throw these away would be bizarre.”

Plastic bags were created to save trees – just as celluloid, the first form of plastic, was invented as a humane alternative to ivory and tortoiseshell.

In the year 2014, 7,600,000,000 free single-use carrier bags were issued by retailers in England. Since October 2015, large retailers have been legally required to charge customers for carrier bags. As a result of this charge, there’s been a dramatic decline in the number of single-use carrier bags issued in England.

A 2020 report by DEFRA shows that in the year 2019 to 2020, 564,000,000 single-use plastic carrier bags were sold for a minimum of 5p each by retailers in England. This might sound like a lot of bags, but in the previous year, the number was 1,110,000,000, and the year before that, it was 1,750,000,000. The year before (2016-2017), 2,120,000,000 single-use plastic carrier bags were sold.

Since 2014, the number of single-use carrier bags in England has been reduced by more than 7,000,000,000 – approximately 92%.

Saving money with reusable bags

In May this year, the government raised the minimum charge for a single-use plastic carrier bag to 10p. In the same month, the Waste and Disposals Action Programme (WRAP) published its Plastic Carrier Bag Consumer Research report. Of the people surveyed, 25% agreed that “it’s only worth doing environmentally-friendly things if they save you money”.

Is it cheaper to use plastic alternatives?

If you go shopping every day, and you buy a 10p carrier bag each time, you’ll spend £36.40 per year on carrier bags. If you shop three times per week, the annual cost is £15.60. And if you buy one carrier bag per week, your annual spend on single-use carrier bags will be £5.20.

A high-quality shopping bag made from organic material such as hemp (Cannabis sativa), cotton (genus Gossypium), linen (Linum usitatissimum), or jute (genus Corchorus) will set you back between £1.50 and £5.00. This bag will probably serve you well for many years. But if it lasts for only one year, it’s a better deal, financially, than all those plastic bags.

Bags for life

In the UK, many large shops offer a “bag for life”.

A bag for life is a durable shopping bag with a price tag of anything from 10p to £1.50. The deal is that when the bag is worn out, the consumer returns it to the shop and is issued with a brand-new replacement. Returned bags are appropriately and productively recycled.

Bags for life range from durable versions of the plastic carrier bag to a biodegradable bag made from cotton, hemp, linen, or jute. They’re also available in other plastic forms, such as nylon or polyester.

Forming new habits

Why do 26% of people still buy single-use plastic carrier bags at the supermarket till?

In its research, WRAP looked at why people still buy single-use plastic carrier bags, even if they own a reusable shopping bag. The two key reasons turned out to be: 1. They forgot to take a bag to the shop (59%); and 2. They didn’t always know when they would be shopping, so they sometimes didn’t have bags to hand (31%).

Habits are wonderful things. Without much thought, they take care of so many frequently performed tasks, leaving greater cognitive capacity for the calculations and reasonings needed in other aspects of our lives. Creating desirable new habits can take a while, but the effort pays off.

So, how about putting a couple of shopping bags in your car. When you’ve brought shopping indoors, put the bags with your car keys to remind you to take them back to the car. Or just pop them straight back into the car.

Hang a shopping bag on your door handle, so you’ll see it as you go out. You can always choose to leave it at home, but at least you won’t forget it.

Ladies – stuff a thin cotton bag into your handbag. And gents – maybe you could keep one in a jacket pocket.

Reuse, replace, reduce

Reusing plastic items reduces the demand for new ones.

And replacing single-use plastic with a desirable alternative will also reduce the demand for new plastic products.

Aqua illi and Aqua Alto taps have the capacity to dispense 45 litres of hot or chilled water every hour, and with the Aqua Touchless, you can keep track of the amount of plastic you’ve kept out of the system.

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