Reduce plastic carrier bags

Filed in by on June 6, 2008 31 Comments

a turtle at the mercy of a plastic carrier bag

The poor old plastic carrier bag eh? All it tries to do is offer us its services by helping us carry things and all it gets as thanks is a lot of people wanting to ban it from our lives.

How many plastic carrier bags do we get through in the UK?

The amount of plastic carrier bags given out by supermarkets amounts to a whopping 17½ billion per year. The average family accumulates 60 bags in four trips to the store.

The amount of petrol used to make these bags is enough to drive a car 2.1 billion miles or nearly 54,000 times round the world; yet only one in every 200 plastic carrier bags is recycled.

Why are plastic bags so bad for the environment?

A plastic carrier bag will take up to 1000 years to break down once it is in the landfill. Compare that to its useful life which can be measured in minutes – the length of time it takes to get our shopping home from the store before being dumped in the dustbin.

Some bags end up in the sea; either through deliberate litter or air borne from the landfill. Out at sea, plastic carrier bags pose great danger to marine life. Globally, an estimated one million birds and 100,000 marine mammals and sea turtles die every year from entanglement in, or ingestion of, plastics.

A shocking story reveals that a Minke whale stranded on a beach in Normandy was found to have 800g of plastic bags and packaging within its stomach. Amongst the identifiable litter were 1 English plastic and foil crisp packet, 2 English supermarket bags, 7 coloured dustbin fragments, 7 transparent plastic bags and 1 food container.

Other bags end up clogging drains which can cause flooding and create a breeding ground for disease.

What can be done?

At least 40 countries or states are now known to have banned plastic carrier bags or taken action to restrict their use.

Since March 2002 Ireland has reduced its checkout plastic bag use by 90%.

A year ago, B&Q, which had been giving out 7m carrier bags a year in Scotland, introduced a 5p-per-bag charge in Scottish stores that may be adopted UK-wide. The result? An 82% fall in consumption, and a cash windfall for Keep Scotland Beautiful. Significantly, 70% of customers are “very happy” with the scheme, with only 1.8% “very unhappy”. M&S have followed suit.

Back in April of 2007, Mobury in Devon was the first town to be ‘plastic bag free’. Since then the idea has spread across the UK and now there is talk of banning the plastic bag altogether.

In 2007, Gordon Brown was reported as saying “I am convinced that we can eliminate single-use plastic bags altogether in favour of long-lasting and more sustainable alternatives.”

What can I do to reduce the amount of plastic bags I send to landfill?

There are many things you can do to reduce the amount of plastic carrier bags you use. Here are our 8 top tips:

1- Reuse

The easiest is to reuse your carrier bags. When you get home, instead of binning them, put them back into your car or bag for the next shopping trip. You can reuse them several times. Some supermarkets, such as Tesco offer reward points for every bag you reuse.

2- A bag is for life

Instead of using disposable plastic carrier bags, buy a ‘bag for life’ which are available at most supermarkets. These last for around 10 shopping trips. When it wears out the cashier will replace it free of charge and the old one will be recycled by the supermarket.

3- Return to sender

Most supermarkets have a collection bin for carrier bags. If you don’t want your carrier bags anymore, put them in the recycling bin. If you have home delivery, your driver will take them back to the store for you.

4- Donate

Donate your carrier bags to a charity shop or local independent retailer. Packaging costs money and these shops will be pleased to use your bags for other customers.

5- Go natural

Better still, do away with plastic altogether as they all eventually break down and end up in the landfill. Opt for a natural fabric bag such as cotton or jute. Look out for future competitions to win a reusable bag of your own! If you’re handy with a needle and thread, then why not make your own Morsbag?

6- the old ways are the best ways

Old fashioned whicker shopping baskets are natural, biodegradable and very strong. They last for years and will hold your heavy shopping without tipping things over.

7- Box it up

Keep a couple of cardboard boxes in the car so that you are never caught without something to put your shopping in.

8- Be a trolley dolly

The shopping trolley is back and it’s cool, funky and a must-have fashion accessory! Forget images of your granny with her brown PVC, Natural Collection, winner of the Observer Ethical Awards for an amazing THREE years in a row, boast the first non-PVC trolley. This trolley was voted BEST BUY in the Independent newspapers 10 Best Shopping Trolleys in April 2008.

9- A Shameless plug and a hearty Yay!

Our favourite reusable bags are the Onya bag and Doy bags. Onya bags are made from recycled parachutes. These bags fold up into a tiny pouch and weigh just 50g. They come with a caribiner clip for you to attach to your belt loop, car keys or bag. These mean that they are always ‘onya’ and you never forget them!

Doy bags are made by a women’s co-operative in the Philippines from recycled tetrapak juice cartons. Not only are they recycled, but they’re fair trade too. They’re bright, fun and will get you noticed!

My thanks go to Dan from Onya bags for giving me help with the statistics for this article.

About the Author ()

I am a long time supporter of the Green and Sustainable lifestyle. After being caught in the Boscastle floods in 2004, our family begun a journey to respect and promote the importance of Earth's fragile ecosystem, that focussed on reducing waste. Inspired by the beauty and resourcefulness of this wonderful planet, I have published numerous magazine articles on green issues and the author of four books.

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  1. I became a trolley dolly a few months ago and I now wouldn’t be without it. It is really like a huge handbag on wheels. It’s made in Spain using Italian fabric…I can’t resist plugging it because it is utterly gorgeous…check out

  2. Mrs Green says:

    Oooo, lovely, Mrs A. I’m rather partial to a bit of cow print myself. But the Marilyn Monroe one is a little difficult to resist 😉

    I’m glad you’re getting on well with yours. How do you find people react to them – are they still associated with the older generation or do you think they’ve entered ‘eco chic’ now?

    Mrs g x

  3. Mr Green says:

    This is such an important issue!! The plastic bag is perhaps the ugliest ‘convenience’ of our time. We accept it, use and lose it it without thought or compromise and yet each plastic bag we dispose of adds up to this vast mountain of pollution that will still be here poisoning the world once we have long gone.

    We must reject the plastic bag, we must make every effort to use a natural alternative and not rely on this insidious convenience.

  4. Well Mrs G…with trolley bags like this, it is definitely the eco-chic way to go. Mr particular black & white number gets lots of admiring glances as I march along the streets of Bury St Edmunds. Admiration from the young and old.

    I am always tickled pink when I walk past the row of more elderly and wiser ladies, sitting waiting for their bus, with such comments as “ooohh, that’s a lovely one Doris”

    A shining smile on my face appears accompanied by a warm glow inside, knowing it’s full of loose fruit and vegetables inside.

    The only side, due to laziness and the size of our house, is that it does end up as a glorified fruit basked when I get home. 😀

  5. LOL – my spelling eh? Fruit basked? I think it’s me that’s turning into a fruit basket and I am officially off my trolley! ;-D xxx

  6. Mrs Green says:

    I really shouldn’t apologise for your typos. I did a classic one last week, which, in fact was highly Freudian and will be used for the title of an article someday soon.

    I love typos; they can be extraordinarily entertaining and we love you all the more for your humaness………

    We welcome all fruit baskets who are off their trolley around here 😀

    Mrs G x

  7. Kris says:

    Just a thought on Bag for Life.

    I really like Waitrose ones as they seem to be particularly durable. The two gorgeous rose print ones (yes, a fashion choice I felt) I have tucked in my handbag have actually been in service for over a year now. Admittedly they do a bit less since I couldn’t resist the Tesco ladybird Jute bag which is often sufficient on it’s own, but it’s nice always to have a bag with me and the Waitrose ones are.

  8. Mrs Green says:

    Hi Kris,

    Welcome to our site and thanks for leaving your thoughts here – we love hearing from our readers.

    Ooo, a rose print bag for life; now you’re talking. I have to admit I don’t like the jute ones; I really need something I can fold up to be tiny otherwise I don’t take them with me. Jute is so scratchy too!!

    I hope you enjoy the site!

    mrs G x

  9. Mrs Green says:

    I just had contact from a reader of My Zero Waste who wanted to tell everyone that Morrisons in Solihull take back carrier bags for recycling.
    There’s another one to add to the list!

  10. Helen says:

    Thanks for this site I’m doing an art project on plastic bags, and i am coming from a recycling/try not to use angle.
    I am busy thinking of ways to reuse carrier bags including joining them togther to make a water resistant ground sheet, lining waste bins etc….Anybody got any other ideas. Thanks 🙂

  11. Mrs Green says:

    Hello Helen, welcome to the site. The art project sounds great and I hope some of the other readers come along and give you ideas.
    I’ve seen them crotched into reusable bags, rugs, baskets and even sandals on my travels around the net LOL!

    here is some inspiration too.

    Have fun!

  12. A. Jack says:

    I totally agree with the writer ,,
    I would like to share this article with my nearby Super Market ,, it is a big one and git LCD screens. I’ve already asked the supervisor if i can make PowerPoint slides about how plastic bugs are dangerous, and he agreed. I’ld like to use this pic in the article in my presentation ,, and I’ll put your website under the pic. My question is, am i allowed to use this picture ?

    please reply me on my Email..
    Kind Regards,,

  13. Mrs Green says:

    A.Jack – welcome to the site. I have emailed you, so please check your inbox!

  14. Marvin says:

    It is plastic bags for whatever reason that bug me the most, even though I live across the Atlantic ocean from most of you.

    I work in a Walgreens drug store, as a clerk. We have two opposite customer types. A very few bring their own cloth bags, and a few more try to carry a small amount with only their hands. They know the danger of plastic and do their best to at least reduce them.

    The majority ignore it completely. They have no time to think about it, must less talk, and we have no other options available.

    Then the really serious ones absolutely MUST have any little thing they buy to be put in a bag! It took me a few months and a lot of questions to find out why. They learned that some stores, mostly WalMart, will accuse anyone of stealing if they walk out with anything out of a bag (and the only one they give is plastic). This makes no sense, except that thieves are quite stupid. If they were smart they would just bring a plastic bag in their pocket and fill it to carry out without any accusation. Hmmm. maybe some do this.

    I may try some day if I have to time, to pay for something thee times in three different locations, and refuse to allow them into a plastic bag, This will get three witnesses, plus another one whom comes with me to watch. When I walk out the door I will be stopped. But I will just ignore them and walk away. If that does not work, I will demand they arrest me and take me to court. Then in the trial I will demand all three clerks and the witness with me to testify. First of all there is no law I know of that anyone can be accused of stealing just because they have no bag or receipt. At least this will get their attention the fact that I want NO PLASTIC BAGS FOR ANYTHING!

  15. Janet says:

    I have noticed that “bags for life” are no longer that strong . I had a brand new “bag for life” the other day, in which I had 2 items, it only just got a little way out of the shop and the bottom fell out of it, so had to walk back holding the milk , and cradling the meat like a baby.

    Dont get me wrong, but most times that I go to the shops I have a trolley , and my cloth/”bags for life” bags are in the bottom of it, but when I am only going for one or two items I have a plastic ” bag for life” in my handbag.

    This is not the first time this has happened to me. Since they started producing these bags the quality has gone down, only Waitrose “bags for life” seem to be the same good quality.
    I feel that the supermarkets have been able to reduce the quality of these, because not enough people are returning the bags for new ones, and they are treating these as disposables.

  16. Marvin says:

    I assume you mean that these bags are given to you. Here we buy the bags priced one to two dollars, and they are a lot stronger and longer lasting than anything plastic. But most people just forget to bring them, including me.


  17. Mrs Green says:

    @Marvin: Hi Marvin, this sounds like a passionate subject for you – thanks for taking time to comment. I think in all honesty, most shops like you to use the bag because it is free ‘advertising’ and product placement for them. Every time someone carriers their bag with a shop name on it, it sends out a subliminal message to the rest of us. I too have wondered if I will ever get stopped and accused of stealing, so I make sure I keep my receipt on hand 🙂
    Your plan sounds elaborate; let us know if you go through with it 😉

    @Janet: Hi Janet, I’ve never bought a bag for life, so I can’t comment, but your experience doesn’t sound at all positive. It also highlights a trend to make something, get the customer vote and then drop the quality of it 🙁

  18. dw says:

    Well I agree that plastic bag is evil and all.
    Mostly i reuse the shopping bag as a trash bag for all the trashes, which shouldn’t be considered angelic.
    Then I start researching and found that paper bags are also as damaging to the environment do to the trees and energy used to produce and manage it.. and most articles say paper vs plastic neither wins.

    So I’m neither here nor there. If i reduce my plastic, to me it would mean i will use more paper.


  19. Jane says:

    Take your own reusable bag shopping and you will soon reduce the number of single use carrier bags that you pick up.

    Keep your food waste separate from other waste and then you won’t need to line other waste bins.

    Have you already got a drawer or cupboard stuffed full of carrier bags? Think of all the space you’d gain by freeing yourself of the vast majority of them! You’ll also have saved yourself the bother of recycling them.

  20. Mrs Green says:

    @dw: Hello dw, welcome to the site. I hear you on the paper vs plastic issue. We too discovered that paper wasn’t that good. For us we reuse as much as we can and because we no longer have wet waste in our bin we don’t need bin liners. I think it’s reducing the bags you don’t need and then reusing the ones you can all the way ….

  21. Jane says:

    I paid particular attention to the people leaving Sainsbury’s the other day as I walked in to see how many people were using their own bags – not necessarily ALL their own bags but some and so were showing they had made an effort and a choice. Only two had none at all in over 15 people. Congratulations British shoppers!

  22. Mrs Green says:

    @Jane: I’ve noticed this too Jane, it’s really catching on but I think I notice differences between supermarkets too and JS and Waitrose have some of the highest ” reusable bag ” customers 🙂

  23. Jane says:

    @Mrs Green: I’ve also done the same exercise in Tesco and it has improved with more people taking their own bags – but I now visit Tesco rarely because I am unhappy with their lack of commitment to recycling and packaging identification and reduction.

  24. Jane says:

    I hate politics but we do all need to be aware that a lot of lobbying of politicians and voters goes on by the various industries and not just believe their arguments. Here is an interesting story from the States.

  25. Mrs Green says:

    @Jane: Lobbying is something we could definitely do better at. We made a half hearted attempt last year, but there is still room for improvement. Still, locally we’ve had a bit of success in keeping one library open and the save our forests campaigns are going well too 🙂 The link you shared is excellent – a true story of success of the power of the people – thanks!

  26. Teresa says:

    I hate those flimsy Tesco carrier bags. I do take the odd Morrisons bag as they are stronger, bigger and transparent which makes them great for storing things in.

    I have an Onya backpack and it’s much lighter than any backpack I’ve owned and just as strong as one made from hemp material. Hemp bags are quite heavy.

  27. Marvin L Zinn says:

    This is slowly improving. Now that some of our grocery stores subtract five cents for each cloth bag we use instead of plastic, I do see more of them used.

    Hmmm. I wonder what will happen if I buy 50 very small things for five cents each (each wrapped in plastic) and put each one in a separate cloth bag. . . . nah, it’ll cost more than I save for buying more cloth bags, but it would be interesting just to see what they do.


  28. Teresa says:


    I think Tesco is worse for shoppers not using their own bags but the bags are so very flimsy and rip easily. Sainsbury’s is a bit more upmarket and those who shop in Lidl also take their own bags because they have to pay for them. Morrisons customers love the strong roomy bags that Morrisons give out so they can re-use them a few times probably to shop at Tesco as well.

  29. Mrs Green says:

    @Teresa: Ahhh, we love the onya bags and have a few of them. They have lasted for years…

    @Marvin L Zinn: It’s a great incentive to take off money when you reuse your own bags. Over here, the nearest to that is that you get a loyalty point on your clubcard. I think you should try your bag trick and see what happens!

  30. Jane says:

    @Teresa: It took Tesco and Morrison longer to do anything about providing an alternative to the single use carrier for sale than Sainsburys and Waitrose. Then when they did they were hidden. The Tesco bag was degradable but that is not considered a good idea any more. Tesco had a brilliant advert telling their customers how happy Tesco would be if they took their shopping home in other containers – eg Alan Titchmarsh with a wheelbarrow. It would be good if they ran it again. Have you seen the Banksy?

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