Plastic bags. That’s all we hear about today. A few years ago, the government introduced charges, but it hasn’t made a lot of difference. Apparently around 50% less are used, but this still means millions and millions are used. Everywhere you go, there are plastic bags in the sea, snagged on trees, fallen into rivers and seas, and left on farmland. Plastic is made from oil and takes 500 years to biodegrade.
Meanwhile, the plastic breaks down into microplastics and then gets ingested by farm animals or marine wildlife, which then die. Plastic bags are also suffocation hazards. Also see a gallery of reusable totes and towns that have banned plastic bags.
Why Wildlife Doesn’t Like Plastic Bags
Just like balloons, on an island it’s 70% likely that a flyaway plastic bag is going to land in the sea. One in three leatherback turtles have been found to have plastic in their stomachs. Others can accidentally fly out of the car, if your window is open on a hot day. And more get tossed away in overflowing litter bins, only to blow up in the wind, and again land in our waters or farmer fields.
Ironically, plastic bags were originally invented to try to save the planet. This was because as our world population got bigger and more people bought things, more trees were being chopped down to make paper bags. Before the knowledge on the perils of plastic, people thought that plastic would be better. The main type of plastic used for most bags was not even invented until the 1950s.
What About Bags for Life?
Recent research has found that ‘supermarket bags for life’ are more like ‘bags for a week’. Most don’t fold down (so forgetful people can’t keep a spare one in their bag or glovebox). And they don’t even last that long. They are still disposable, the supermarket just says you can have another one for free, which kind of defeats the object. And as most of us reluctantly have to visit supermarkets, many people are not happy giving free advertising to big stores that send indie shops out of business.
Morrisons has become the first supermarket to remove them from stores. This has been welcomed by environmentalists as it will save thousands of tons of plastic each year. They will instead offer 30p alternatives made from paper, if customers forget to bring a bag. Woven bags will be also available, all tested to hold a lot of groceries. This has infuriated some customers (not because they want the plastic bags but because Morrisons are presumably making more profit from something that the customers want for free).
Environmental campaigners want far more ambitious changes – like refillable containers (akin to zero waste scoop shops). Of course, the supermarkets won’t do this, because they make a lot of profit on items that are not refillable (you buying a bag of loose rice is not as profitable as buying plastic-wrapped microwave meals made with rice).
Ways to Use Less Plastic Bags
- Ask your council to invest in a Bagsnagger. This clever invention has a telescopic pole and can remove snagged bags from rivers (without falling in) and snagged trees (without having to climb up the tree).
- If you have a bag of chips, ask them not to wrap the box in a plastic bag (also ruins your chips).
- Try to do shorter trips to local stores, so you can walk and buy only one or two things, then often you don’t need a bag.
- Obviously, invest in a reusable bag or two (below). Try to find ones that easily fold down, so you can keep them in your bag or glovebox.
- If you run a small shop, find some nice illustrations to promote your business, then have them screen-printed on cloth bags, and sell them. Not only can you make a little extra cash, but also you get people to give you free advertising around town.
- The Galleries Shop & Cafe (Bath) is one of England’s most innovative community shops. One service it offers is a ‘borrow a bag’. So if someone turns up and have forgotten their bag, they simply lend one out, trusting that the customer will return it next time.
- If you see littered plastic bags (or any litter) report it (with photos if possible) to Fix My Street. They send the complaint to your council, but also publish it online so often the council quickly acts. If the litter is on public land, the council has a duty legally to clear it up (doesn’t matter who dropped it there).
- Ask your council to ban plastic bags locally. If they can’t, then ask them what they are doing to initiate plastic-bag free campaigns. Do they clear up all plastic bags, and have a litter policy?
- Many big supermarkets now have a bin where you can deposit used plastic bags for recycling, and you can usually them to also recycle other plastic packaging (although not clingfilm in most cases). So keep the bags in drawers with any other plastic you can’t avoid, and recycle it next time you’re passing.
Who’s Already Banned Plastic Bags?
Many places, apart from us apparently. It looks like we are following Switzerland’s policy which is to ‘educate the public’ and charge more. It works in Switzerland, but alas not here. Also see alternatives to plastic bags.
- In the USA, over 300 towns now ban plastic bags. Washington DC has a tax on plastic bags. The revenue goes to help clean-up local communities and provide reusable bags to elderly people in the local community. San Francisco has banned plastic bags completely.
- Bangladesh has banned them, to help stop flooding.
- The tiny kingdom of Bhutan is run by a Buddhist king who has banned many things (TV ads, coca-cola, cigarettes) and anything he deems that ‘does not make people happy’, including plastic bags.
- In Kenya, you can get a heavy fine or even go to jail, if you are caught selling plastic bags. The same happens on Chile’s coast.
The Town That Banned Plastic Bags
Although supermarkets are reducing bags, they still gave out 900,000 tons of plastic packaging in 2019, so we can’t wait for them to act. The little town of Modbury in Devon has already banned all plastic bags. Rebecca Hosking was working as a wildlife camerawoman for the BBC and cried as she watched baby albatrosses choking on plastic. So on her return home, she showed the film to the community in the local art gallery.
Within a month, everyone had a free cloth bag posted through their letterbox, the deli was selling olives in biodegradable pots, and even the supermarket had got involved. Today (10 years on), the town is still plastic-bag free. Any old plastic bags were handed in as an amnesty, and sent off to be made into other items like garden benches. Read Rebecca’s little manual Ban the Plastic Bag, to do the same in your community.
A Gallery of Reusable Totes
Here is a gallery of beautiful reusable totes. For more info on why to use them, see alternatives to plastic bags.
Lyndsey Green’s Organic Cotton Tote Bags have got to be the prettiest shopping totes around. Made from Fair Trade organic cotton, they are also ethically made and wrapped in a paper belly band. There are lots of designs to choose from including native wildlife (from badgers to foxes) and also some wilder animals like chilled-out sloths and toothy tigers.
Whale Bags are made from organic cotton, with a beautiful whale design. They are ideal to hold your groceries, or just use around town. With no seams, the bags can hold a lot of weight, then just fold into a handy pouch that you can keep in your bag or glovebox. In deep blue, glacier blue, coral pink, charcoal grey or purple.
Turtle Bags were created, because the founders wanted to help turtles not get caught up in plastic bags. These bags are ethically sourced, and sold in various colours. Choose short or long handles (better for hanging over a pushchair or wheelchair) and made from strong and durable GOTS-certified organic cotton. There are also string grocery bags on the market.
Store string bags away from pets and children, as they are strangulation/choking hazards if left lying around.
Willow Earth Canvas Totes (Sussex) are really pretty in rust, indigo or stone. They are made from cotton and feature nice vegan leather cork trims (no trees cut down to make corn). Larger than an average tote, these are made to last, with strong and durable canvas straps.
Shopping Trolleys (not just for old ladies)
Shopping trolleys are a great idea. They are mostly known for sweet old ladies pushing them down the street on wheels. But they are a good idea, as you can place a lot in them, and then don’t have to lug shopping home. Hoxton Shopping Trolley is designed to last and even has a seat, if you need a sit-down on the way back from the shops. There’s a handy cool compartment and the bag is detachable and has a secure hidden pocket for valuables. Holds up to 25kg.