But only if heavy plastic or cotton bags are reused
The debate over the environmental credentials of supermarket carrier bags was reignited yesterday with the release of a major study from the Environment Agency that confirms reusable bags have a lower carbon footprint than single-use plastic bags, but only if they are consistently reused.
The 120-page government-commissioned report analysed the full life cycle carbon footprint of a variety of shopping bags and found that commonly used heavier plastic “bags for life” have a lower impact than thinner, single-use plastic bags so long as they are used four times or more.
“A significant part of the environmental impact of these bags is associated with the resources used in their production,” an Environment Agency spokesman said. “All multi-use bags need to be reused as much as possible to reduce their relative environmental impact and be responsibly recycled at the end of their life.”
The study also found that even if the single-use plastic bag is reused as a bin liner, bags for life only have to be used seven times in order to have a lower carbon footprint.
Similarly, premium bags for life that look as if they are made from plastic have to be used 11 times if they are to have a lower carbon impact than single-use bags, while cotton bags have to be used at least 131 times.
The report also found that if bags are only used once, single-use plastic bags are the best option and have a lower carbon footprint than single-use paper bags.
The British Retail Consortium seized on the report as evidence that the environmental impact of single-use carrier bags has been overblown and has provided a “damaging distraction” from more important environmental issues.
“We are pleased to see the Environment Agency’s report acknowledges single-use carrier bags can have less impact than the alternatives,” said British Retail Consortium sustainability director Andrew Opie. “Yes, the plastic bag has become symbolic but this report confirms it is not the great environmental evil some would have us believe.
“Agonising over bags misses the point. There are much bigger targets supermarkets are helping customers to work on, such as reducing food waste. To obsess over bags distracts consumers from making bigger changes to their habits which would do more to benefit the environment.”
However, a spokesman for the Environment Agency argued that the report confirmed that the high-profile campaign against single-use carrier bags was justified and had a positive effect in encouraging retailers to cut down on single-use plastic bags.
“You can spin it [to show single-use plastic bags have the lowest impact], but the conclusion is that it is more sensible to use reusable bags and then reuse them,” he said, adding that the report did not take account of other environmental impacts associated with single-use bags, such as litter. “Plastic bags are still a huge issue and consumer behaviour towards bags has changed positively in recent years… [the focus on bags] makes people think about other impacts and has led into the debate about packaging.”
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