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UK Supermarkets Sold 57 ‘Bags for Life’ Per Household in 2019 — More Than 1 a Week

Why Global Citizens Should Care
The UN’s Global Goal 13 calls for action on the environment, including restricting plastic use — a material that can take hundreds of years to break down. But if we’re going to cut plastic out of our lives, supermarkets must step up to remove it from supply chains. You can join us in taking action on these issues here.

Everyone has one: a little space under the stairs, a cupboard, or in a pointlessly large IKEA sack — where, somehow, dozens upon dozens of plastic bags have lived rent-free in your home for longer than you can remember.

And now, there is irrefutable evidence that you’re not alone: a new study has found that UK supermarkets sold enough “bags for life” in 2020 for every household in Britain to have 57 each.

The data from environmental charity Greenpeace and the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), an international nonprofit that campaigns for the natural world, included comparisons of the plastic pollution coming from UK supermarkets between 2017 and 2019.

It revealed that the 10 biggest supermarkets in the UK produced 896,853 tonnes of plastic in 2019, an increase of 1.2% from 2017 which, according to the Evening Standard, is the equivalent weight of 90 Eiffel Towers. In total, throughout the year, supermarkets sold 2.1 billion plastic bags, including 1.58 billion reusable "bags for life" — a 65% increase since 2017.

That’s a lot of plastic bags to stuff under your bed.

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The UK changed the law on single-use plastic bags in 2015, legislating for large shops to charge 5p for every bag. Although it led to a fall in single-use plastic bags of 56% between 2017 and 2019, it meant supermarkets sold many more bags intended to be reused over and over again. Now, experts are saying the system needs improvement. 

“Overall, the scale of plastic carrier bag usage remains incredibly high,” the report said. “The government charge for single-use carrier bags is due to increase to 10p in April 2021, but the data suggests the current plastic ‘bag for life’ model, whereby a heavier bag is offered at a slightly higher price to encourage reuse, is not working.”

The study is called “Checking Out on Plastics III”, and includes a league table that ranks how every major UK supermarket is performing on plastic pollution.

Iceland ranked bottom of the league table, measured by its reduction in plastic use, while Waitrose held onto its position at the top. 

Meanwhile, there were some encouraging signs of progress from Aldi and Lidl. Previously, Aldi was rooted at the bottom of the table, but is now coming in second, having made some important strides forward on transparency and the elimination of single-use plastic bags. 

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“In our third year of looking at plastic packaging in UK supermarkets, we had hoped to see a much sharper downwards trajectory as strategies and targets bear fruit,” said Christina Dixon, the EIA’s senior campaigner. “Instead, we are looking at a relatively static picture which represents a drop in the ocean of tackling plastic pollution.”

She added: “The sector urgently needs to pick up the pace of plastic reduction.”