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The truth about ‘bags for life’

Co-op bans bags for life and calls for joined-up approach from government to combat plastic carrier use
Katie Hill - Editor-in-Chief, My Green Pod
The truth about 'bags for life'

Co-op will remove plastic bags for life from sale in all 2,600 stores, warning that the low-cost, reusable bag has become the new single-use carrier.

Co-op will remove plastic bags for life from sale in all 2,600 stores, warning that the low-cost, reusable bag has become the new single-use carrier.

The announcement came as Co-op published a new report, Bag to Rights, which sets out new policy recommendations for government.

As part of this move, and ahead of the new carrier bag levy increase coming into place, the convenience retailer will also roll out compostable carriers to all stores to ensure that customers are able to purchase a low-cost, low-impact alternative bag with a sustainable second use.

A call for greater transparency

Co-op welcomed the rise in the carrier bag charge to 10p. However, it is now urging government to go further in the next phase of its plans and is calling for a policy to require major retailers to report on all reusable bags, as well as single-use bags, to provide greater transparency to track the true impact of the carrier bag levy.

Co-op’s other recommendations include requiring all single-use carrier bags to be certified compostable and to introduce a minimum 50p price for reusable bags to create a greater perceived value to encourage customers to reuse them instead of treating them as single use.

‘Increased use of bags for life has led to a sharp rise in plastic use. With over 1.5 billion bags sold each year by retailers, this remains a massive issue for our industry as many shoppers are regularly buying so called ‘Bags for Life’ to use just once and it’s leading to major hike in the amount of plastic being produced.

‘To help tackle plastic pollution and the use of unnecessary plastic, we will be ceasing the sale of Bags for Life when current stocks are exhausted. We’re also ensuring all of our members and customers have access to a low price point option that’s more environmentally friendly, alongside more durable bags at a higher price point.

‘We believe that it should be mandatory for all retailers to report on the sales of all of their reusable bags, not just single-use bags. Right now, Co-op is the only major retailer to report on all of the bags it sells. This policy would enable a fuller understanding on the impact of the levy and its true effect on shopping behaviours when customers are making decisions at the tills.’

CEO, Co-op Food

Bags for life sales rising

Co-op praises the success of the levy’s ability to reduce the sale of conventional single use carriers significantly, seeing a 95% reduction since its introduction in 2015.

However, data from Greenpeace has indicated that in 2019, supermarkets distributed over 1.5 billion bags for life – weighing a total of 44,913 tonnes – which is a 56% increase from the previous year.

Bags for life use more plastic in their production than conventional single-use carriers, which has in turn increased the amount of plastic in circulation.

Co-op’s new initiative will remove 29.5 million bags for life, weighing around 870 tonnes of plastic, from sale each year.

‘We applaud the Co-op not only for highlighting the fake numbers currently quoted on plastic bags and the fact that bags for life have more than replaced the amount of plastic being used for flimsy bags, but also how they have given the compostable bag a different mission. 

‘It is not a compostable shopping bag; it’s the liner for a food waste bin that you can bring your groceries home in first. Result – less plastic in our food waste; more food waste collected; healthier soil. This should be mandated for all bags in future to avoid confusion for the waste industry. If they can do it in Italy, we can do it here in UK.’

A Plastic Planet co-founder

Embedding ‘real reuse’

The convenience retailer is now looking to work with more food retailers to adopt a balanced and joined-up approach to their carrier bag offer.

Co-op’s approach involves removing bags for life from sale, rolling out a compostable bags for 10p and setting the price of its lowest cost reusable bag at 50p. This approach is aimed at embedding real reuse of bags in the retail setting.

By replacing single-use bags with certified compostable carrier bags, there is a low-cost option available to customers who forget their reusable bag, or just need an extra bag on a shopping trip. The compostable option has a built-in and very valuable second use.

Currently only one other retailer offers a lower priced bag alternative to a bag for life. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many customers are simply choosing the cheapest bag available, which in many cases is a bag for life.

‘All bags, regardless of the material they are made from, impact on the environment. The most important thing to reduce this impact is reuse. Just as we all now carry a mask about ourselves, we should be doing the same with shopping bags.

‘Supermarkets have a responsibility to incentivise this and we would like to see transparent reporting on all types of shopping bags – whether they are made of traditional plastic, compostable plastic or paper. There will be times when we forget to bring a bag and in these instances we can still reuse those bags, and at the end of their life we recycle them at supermarket collection points. For Co-op’s shoppers this means that they are able to reuse carrier bags and if they have a food waste collection then they can use it as a caddy liner.’

Strategic engagement manager WRAP

The right time for a roll out

Co-op became the first retailer to make compostable carrier bags widely available when it rolled them out to over 1,000 stores in 2018.

The bags are certified compostable with a secondary use as a food waste caddy liner in the home and, collected as part of Local Authority household food waste collections. The bags are also suitable for use in home-compost bins.

With the ongoing expansion of kerbside collections across Local Authorities in the UK, this is the right time to make the bags available in all stores. 

The move also promotes increased engagement with food waste collections, which is why Co-op is also recommending that all single-use carrier bags must be compostable, at a minimum price of 10p wherever sold.

Co-op removed plastic stems from cotton buds before any other retailer 14 years ago, banned microbeads and removed all hard-to-recycle black and dark plastic from its shelves. Co-op is on track to make all of its own-brand packaging easily recyclable this year.

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