There’s a question hanging over the war on plastic. Why do we tax our single-use plastic shopping bags, but not the countless single-use plastic bags we use for gathering our loose fruit and veg?
According to Morrisons, customers get through some 150 million of those small plastic bags every year. And now, it's taking action to cut them out, too — by replacing them with paper alternatives.
The first supermarket outlets saw the change on Monday, and Morrisons has pledged that it will be rolled out to all 493 of its stores by the end of the summer.
According to the store — the fourth-largest supermarket in the UK — the bags will be made from 100% recycled paper with a see-through strip so shoppers and staff can see what’s inside.
“We’ve listened to customers’ concerns about using plastic bags for fruit and vegetables and that is why we are bringing back paper bags,” said Drew Kirk, a produce director at the supermarket, in an interview with the Guardian.
The move is part of the supermarket’s pledge to aim to ensure all plastic packaging on own-brand products is reusable, recyclable, or compostable by 2025. Currently, according to the store, 82% of plastic in its packaging is recyclable.
Environmental campaigners are, in general, big fans of the store’s decision.
“With a paper bag, if it escapes into the environmental it will biodegrade very soon,” said Julian Kirby, a campaigner for Friends of the Earth, which welcomed the move. “That is not the case with a plastic one.”
Meanwhile the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) said it was “great news.”
But the decision is drawing some criticism, with some campaigners reportedly pointing out that the production cycle of paper bags uses more energy and creates more CO2 emissions than the production cycle of plastic ones.
According to a report published by the Environment Agency, paper bags are only better overall than plastic ones if they’re used more than four times.
While that report was published seven years ago now, according to the Guardian, sustainability charity Wrap has said that the findings are still relevant.
Kirby, of Friends of the Earth, also referenced the problem.
“The thing about climate change is because it’s such a huge worry it has eclipsed other very serious environmental and health concerns, and that would include…pollution,” said Kirby.
And a spokesperson for Morrisons added: “We have listened to customers and they are telling us that the overuse of plastic is the most important environmental issue for us to deal with.”
While the plastic vs. paper debate pits one environmental problem (climate change) against another (plastic waste), you could say that what’s really needed is a move away from our throwaway culture of single-use objects.
The switch to paper bags isn't the only step Morrisons has announced to help take down plastic.
Shoppers are also encouraged to bring in their own containers for buying fresh meat and fish from the counters — and there’s a 100-point loyalty card boost as an incentive.
Morrisons is also aiming to phase out the black plastic trays used for meat, which are difficult to recycle, by the end of next year.
In April, 42 UK companies — including Morrisons, Aldi, Asda, Lidl, Sainsbury’s, Waitrose, and Tesco — signed a voluntary pledge to crack down on plastic pollution by 2025.
Signatories, which included government departments, trade associations, retailers, campaign groups, and more, are responsible for 80% of the plastic packaging on products sold in British supermarkets.
Iceland, meanwhile, didn’t sign the pledge because it had “already taken a more far-reaching decision to eliminate plastic packaging form our own-label range in its entirety by 2023,” said Iceland CEO Richard Walker at the time.
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