Plastic ‘bags for life’ add to toppling piles of COVID-19 waste

By Rebecca Cook    

The plastic waste amassed as a result of coronavirus this year proves the fight against plastic is one step forward, three steps backwards.

During the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic in the UK a gathering sense of anxiety hung stale in the air. Widely circulated images of empty supermarket shelves created an endless feedback loop of panic buying as products vanished.

During lockdown, many turned to the internet to order food as venturing out became too dangerous a prospect. On several occasions I stayed up past midnight, when advance delivery slots were dropped online like coveted Glastonbury tickets. With my laptop overheating on my legs I tripped from a one supermarket website tab to another: Sainsbury’s, Tesco’s, Iceland, Asda, anywhere that would deliver to deepest Dorset. More often than not, all the time slots were already blocked out as ‘Booked’.

When a slot miraculously appeared, in my joy and haste to snap it up I didn’t notice that the option at checkout to receive plastic bagless delivery had vanished. Weeks later, when my treasure trove of goodies finally arrived, I was surprised to find it all packaged in ‘bag for life’ bags I had not been charged for. The next time I got a food delivery, I was again baffled. Months later, I have amassed enough of these lifelong bags to last me many lifetimes over, all stashed in a cupboard where I suspect they will long remain undisturbed.

Feeding the nation

Given the task supermarkets were forced to face, feeding the nation on little to no warning, they coped admirably. Tesco’s reported almost 1.5 million people a week were buying groceries online, compared with 600,000 at the start of the crisis. They phased plastic bags out of their deliveries last year, but the new protocol was suspended during the pandemic.

At the time, it was hard to take issue with the use of these bags. The threat of coronavirus infection rightfully outweighed all else and for drivers these plastic bags reduced the contact between themselves and recipients. When anxieties around protecting our health and hygiene loomed so large, plastics ceased to weigh so heavily on our mind.

Yet as we come out of the pandemic peak and Extinction Rebellion are making headlines again, we are reminded that Covid-19 is not the only impending threat to our health.

The plastic problem is by no means limited to bags: PPE in the form of disposable gloves and face masks as well as hand sanitiser are in high demand, and will be for the foreseeable future. At the start of the pandemic, the plastic market predicted there would be reduced demand for certain plastics and plastic bags due to the drop in high street footfall. Yet this year’s Everyday Plastic Survey reported a household increase in pieces of plastic waste from 99 to 128 during the pandemic.

Founder of Everyday Plastic Daniel Webb said: “The outcome of the Everyday Plastic Survey supports assumptions that domestic plastic waste increased under lockdown conditions, particularly fruit and veg packaging, snack wrappers, parcel bags and PPE”.

The French ocean clean-up organisation, Opération Mer Propre, has reported alarming instances of this material in the sea, going so far as to say there could soon be more masks in the ocean than jellyfish. An estimated eight million tonnes of plastic enter the ocean every year; scientists have predicted there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2050.

The bag for life backlash

Last week the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) announced the charge for single-use plastic bags in England will go up from the 5p levy introduced in 2015 to 10p in April next year.

Yet Greenpeace is already asking the government to go further. Following the announcement, Environment Secretary George Eustice told the Today programme he had between six and 10 bags for life at home. I can only assume he either didn’t order food online during lockdown, or has already disposed of his own stockpile. Mr Eustice also claimed this increased cost for single-use bags will encourage the sale and use of bags for life.

The bag for life was rolled out as a more sustainable alternative to its single-use ugly stepsister. They are thicker and so use more plastic and cost more but are intended to last longer. The Environment Agency found that one needs to be used at least four times in order to cause less environmental harm than the single-use bag. Yet customers increasingly fail to reuse them and they pose a greater threat when thrown away. Their use during the pandemic has framed these lifelong carriers as a disposable option.

The smaller, flimsier single-use bags have been successfully and rightfully demonised, but they use less plastic and, despite their namesake, can be reused despite being less durable. Perhaps our search for a similarly plastic alternative has only succeeded in introducing more plastic onto the market and shying away from an adamant rejection.

Criticism of the bag for life has grown. Morrison’s is trialling the use of paper bags in some of its stores after their research, much like that conducted by the Environment Agency, showed customers used their bag for life once and then threw them away. Waitrose has announced a similar scheme to phase the bags out.

While paper bags are certainly not the solution, as they require deforestation and increased energy use to manufacture, for now they could at least halt the backsliding of progress made to limit plastic waste.

What can be done?

The toughest bans on plastics are in Sub-Saharan Africa, where 30 countries have serious plastic bag bans. Kenya leads the way with the strictest policy. Without centralised waste management systems, the ruinous effect of plastic bags in these countries is heightened. As a result the region is now ahead of much of the world in tackling plastic waste.

The Republic of Ireland’s plastic bag levy is a similarly hopeful example. When bag for life prices were set at 70 cents, sales dropped by 90%, begging the question that perhaps a similar hiked charge should be introduced in the UK.

While the coronavirus may be in our rear-view mirror next year, the plastic problem won’t be and we could find that we have done further irreparable damage to our planet. Single-use throwaway culture is widely condemned, but the virtue-signalling behind the preposterously named ‘bag for life’ could be the next frontier in the fight against plastic bags.

If we have these bags we have to reuse them. Ideally, the government will further intervene and impose higher fees or a strict ban. Oil is formed over millions of years underground, to then be made into a plastic bag someone will use once for an hour, before it goes back below ground into a landfill for hundreds of years. 10p is better than 5p, but when you’re looking at the staggering lifespan of these bags, the charge still isn’t high enough to interrupt existing shopping habits.

The best change we can make ourselves is to ensure we always have a reusable carrier bag. Whether it’s a cotton tote bag, a trusty rucksack or one of the many bags for life you may also have amassed during lockdown. There are several options on the market. The key is to ensure you have one or two to use again and again and again in order to avoid the disposable plastic and throwaway culture causing a global environmental catastrophe.

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