Skip to content

Thicker bags don’t solve the plastics problem

‘Bags of life', as they're called, do not get reused nearly as much as retailers would like to believe.

‘Get rid of single-use plastic bags' has been a rallying cry for many shoppers and retailers over the past year. There have been signs of progress, such as Waitrose's experimental refillable section and the spread of zero waste stores and reusable takeout food containers. But sometimes what appears to be progressive does more harm.

Take, for example, the fact that many retailers now offer thicker, sturdier plastic bags at checkout. Their reasoning is that these ‘bags for life' are more likely to be reused by shoppers than the flimsy ones that tear as soon as too much weight or a sharp corner is put into them. Unfortunately it doesn't work that way. Shoppers who accept plastic bags are no more likely to bring them back if they're sturdy than if they're flimsy.

The Guardian reports that the switch to these ‘bags for life' has actually resulted in greater plastics usage over the past year, despite retailers' promises to reduce it. Citing a report just published by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) and Greenpeace:

“In 2018, supermarkets put an estimated 903,000 tonnes of plastic packaging onto the market, an increase of 17,000 tonnes on the 2017 footprint. The surge is fuelled in part by a huge rise in the sale of ‘bags for life' by 26 percent to 1.5bn, or 54 bags per household.”

These thicker bags require far more plastic to manufacture, which means that far more goes to waste when they're not reused (which is usually the case). It can't even be called a Band-Aid solution because it exacerbates the problem, rather than offers a realistic solution.

As we've said time and again on TreeHugger, there has to be a cultural shift away from all this uni-directional packaging. We have to retrain ourselves to shop differently, to own a handful of reusable cloth bags that we remember to take with us and to bring our own containers for food. I don't think this is impossible; looking around me now at the grocery store I am frequently impressed by how many people have reusable bags. I'd say it's more common than not in my small Canadian town.

But not all responsibility lies with the consumer. We should be actively encouraged and incentivized by retailers to bring our own bags and containers; after all, we're saving them money by providing the packaging.

The report says, “This is an area ripe for major transformation, as currently almost all products are sold in one-way packaging… Supermarkets need to buck up and think bigger. They must change their stores to offer loose food dispensers, reusable packaging, and move away from throwaway packaging altogether.”

‘Bags of life', as they're called, do not get reused nearly as much as retailers would like to believe.