Plastic bag take-back: the next step towards a circular economy?

Plastic bag use is expected to fall significantly in Sweden after an innovative take-back trial conducted by Nottingham Trent University led to an 80% drop in consumer usage.

In the UK, the number of plastic shopping bags handed out by retailers in England dropped from seven billion to just over half a billion within six months after the 5p charge was created

In the UK, the number of plastic shopping bags handed out by retailers in England dropped from seven billion to just over half a billion within six months after the 5p charge was created

A refundable fee of two Swedish Krona - equivalent to around 20p - per bag was offered for customers of an electrical retail outlet during a two-month trial in Stockholm. The study, conducted in collaboration with KTH Royal Institute of Technology, discovered that only 20% of 3,200 customers were willing to pay the charge.

Around 2% returned their used carrier bags but researchers suggest this figure could rise substantially if the system was made widely available at other outlets.

Nottingham Trent University research fellow Dr Jagdeep Singh said: “These findings show that there is real potential for Sweden to lower its use of plastic bags significantly by introducing a policy like ‘take back’ to incentivise consumers to be more environmentally friendly.

“Not only will this reduce the amount of waste plastic going to landfill, but it will save on the carbon, energy and water footprints of making so many plastic carrier bags in the first place.”

Changing behaviours

Swedish laws currently permit retailers to give free plastic bags to customers in all shops except grocery stores, but they are still expected to inform customers of the waste implications. The Teknikmagasinet electronics retailer involved in the trial is still running the scheme and is potentially looking to roll it out to other outlets across Sweden.

In the UK, the number of plastic shopping bags handed out by retailers in England dropped from seven billion to just over half a billion within six months, following the introduction of the 5p carrier bag charge in October 2015.

The carrier bag charge represents something of a CSR success story, with retailers now using the profits gained from the charge to boost a number of in social development projects. Researchers suggest that similar policies could now be successfully implemented in Britain, such as a deposit return scheme on plastic bottles, or a charge on disposable coffee cups.

Nottingham Trent University research co-author Professor Tim Cooper said: “Not only does this research show how plastic carrier bag use can be curtailed by changing consumer behaviour, but it provides an important insight as to how business models for other products may be changed to help achieve a more circular economy.”

Take-back tests

The take-back concept is not a new phenomenon; outdoor clothing company Timberland, for example, is set to extend a pilot trialled in Germany to the rest of Europe to extend the lifecycle brought into Timberland stores by consumers. And last year, the British automotive industry launched a new takeback collection service designed to help recycle 'orphan' cars.

Speaking to edie recently, the managing director of The Furniture Recycling Group (TFRG), which partners with businesses to provide a recycling service for used mattresses, praised the high street retailers which have incorporated takeback systems into their own sustainability plans. Swedish retailer IKEA, for one, has trialled a closed-loop re-use initiative on hard-to-dispose-of products including sofas, mattresses and kitchen appliances.

George Ogleby


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