Since the 5p levy on single-use plastic bags across the UK, we’ve reduced our use of them by 86%.
This is brilliant, but this still means that we bought more than a billion plastic bags in 2017-2018.
There’s no arguing that they’re handy. But plastic bags are terrible for the environment. If we want to make some big eco-friendly changes, then plastic bag recycling has to be right up there with banning plastic straws and embracing reusable water bottles.
The Curse of Plastic Bags
Plastic bags are usually made from polythene. Lightweight yet sturdy, polythene was actually invented by accident in the 1930s. Then it was used by the British military, but in 1965 a Swedish company called Celloplast patented the plastic bag as we know it today.
Surprisingly, they didn’t catch on until the 1970s. Yet by the 1980s they were everywhere due to pushy marketing. The fact they didn’t fall apart like paper bags or get damp like cloth versions must’ve also swayed the public.
But that’s part of the problem. Because plastic bags don’t fall apart or get damp they hang around forever. Their best feature – their sturdiness – is the reason we need to strive for less plastic in general.
Estimates vary, but it’s thought that plastic carrier bags can take up to 1,000 years to decompose.
William the Conqueror’s single use Waitrose bag would just about be breaking down today. Which is why they’re everywhere. Polluting rivers, oceans, parks and fields and flying around the high street.
Where to Recycle Plastic Bags
If you were thinking about keeping those single use bags for re-use in the kitchen bin or picking up dog poop, please don’t. Because they’ll still eventually end up in landfill for a thousand years. Recycling is the best way to dispose of them.
Plastic bag recycling is possible, but you have to go a bit out of your way to do it. Currently, they can’t go in council kerbside bins because they’re too flimsy and can clog the recycling machines.
It’s a pain because that’s the simplest way for us to recycle. All is not lost though. You can take plastic bags back to your supermarket for specialist recycling!
When looking for where to recycle plastic bags, head to one of the following supermarkets. They all provide plastic bag recycle bins or return to driver schemes:
- Co-op (only in larger stores)
- Ocado – hand back last week’s plastic bags to your delivery driver
Many supermarkets also have good policies on other plastics.
Sainsbury’s have ditched single use bags in store and only offer 100% recycled ‘bags for life’. These can be recycled and replaced for free when they wear out.
Waitrose have committed £1 million to ‘Plan Plastic’. This is an initiative divided into schemes that help rethink how we can use and dispose of plastics. (Although it didn’t stop me finding my apples wrapped in ‘not currently recycled’ plastic yesterday.)
Ocado offer customers 5p for every bag they return, including bags from other supermarkets. M&S are trialling a ‘take back’ scheme to collect carrier bags and black plastics. If you see one of their recycling bins be sure to use it.
If you’re looking for where to recycle plastic bags, the recycling bins are usually just as you go in, by the trolleys.
Not All Plastic Bags Are Made Equal
Most single use carrier bags along with bin liners, straws and packaging films are made from low density polythene (LDPE).
LDPE is simply a thin sheet of plastic. Despite that, LDPE plastic bag recycling isn’t usually possible from kerbside recycling bins.
Incidentally, high density polythene (HDPE), which is used to make plastic milk cartons, can go in the kerbside bin. Unless your local council says differently.
There are many symbols for the 50 plus convenience plastics available to us. And they don’t make for exciting reading. But you can easily find out how to recycle each plastic according to your postcode with Recycle Now.
Whilst biodegradable bags break down into larger pieces in the open air, they don’t break down in the soil or in an ocean environment. That is, they won’t biodegrade in landfill or if they’re washed out to sea.
In fact, biodegradable bags buried in soil could still carry a load of shopping after three years. So much for biodegradation in landfill – it’s a pretty misleading term for consumers.
And while compostable bags do break down, they may leak traces of chemicals into the soil. Scuppered at every turn!
The best thing to do is use no plastic bags at all. Grab yourself paper bags and fabric bags, and line your bin with newspaper instead.
In the meantime, reuse your current plastic bags until they can’t go on, before recycling them at the supermarket.
Plastic Bag Recycling: A New Lease of Life?
Last year 1.75 billion plastic bags were sold by major retailers, and we don’t know how many were recycled.
Those that did make it into the recycling system were made into more plastic bags, traffic cones and shampoo bottles.
This is good work and much better than plastic bags swirling around the environment. But energy was still needed to manufacture these recycled products.
Just One in the Bin Won’t Matter, Will It?
It’s easy to think ‘one won’t matter’. But when every plastic bag can potentially litter the environment and endanger wildlife for 1,000 years, it does matter.
It only takes one plastic bag to strangle a seabird or suffocate a hedgehog.
We can all make a difference right now:
- source strong fold-away cloth or hessian bags for grocery shopping,
- use paper bags to take our fruit and veg to the checkout, and
- take reusable containers to the deli counter and buy what we need.
In our quest for a plastic free kitchen, many of us now have reusable bags hanging around. We just need to remember to take them to the shops with us!
If you order food shopping online, choose a bagless delivery. When you spot bags littering the environment pick them up and recycle them. If you have no choice, then grab a bag for life made from recycled plastics.
In desperate need? Return any single use bags to the supermarket or give them to your delivery driver.
While recycling plastic bags is a good step forward, eliminating them from your life is the most eco-friendly choice.
This cuts down on the need for non-renewable fossil fuels and the energy requirements needed to make and recycle plastics. Some plastic free swaps are easier than others, plastic bags seems like an easy win!
It is possible because everyone lived without earth-suffocating plastic bags in the 1960s. Go retro – ask granny how she got her shopping home!