Co-op to remove plastic bags for life from all stores

Co-op will remove plastic bags for life from sale in all 2,600 stores, citing concerns that they are increasing the amount of plastic in circulation, instead choosing to offer customers 10p compostable bags.

Co-op’s new initiative will remove 29.5 million bags for life, weighing around 870 tonnes of plastic

Co-op’s new initiative will remove 29.5 million bags for life, weighing around 870 tonnes of plastic

The retailer will start removing plastic bags for life across all its stores. In the short-term, reusable bag prices will be increased to 50p, with Co-op offering certified compostable bags for 10p to incentivise customers.

The company notes that bags for life use more plastic in production than traditional single-use bags. Co-op’s new initiative will remove 29.5 million bags for life, weighing around 870 tonnes of plastic, from sale each year.  

Co-op’s chief executive Jo Whitfield said: “Increased use of Bags for Life has led to a sharp rise in plastic use. With over 1.5 billion bags sold each year by retailers, this remains a massive issue for our industry as many shoppers are regularly buying so-called ‘Bags for Life’ to use just once and it’s leading to a major hike in the amount of plastic being produced. 

“We believe that it should be mandatory for all retailers to report on the sales of all of their reusable bags, not just single-use bags. Right now, Co-op is the only major retailer to report on all of the bags it sells. This policy would enable a fuller understanding on the impact of the levy and its true effect on shopping behaviours when customers are making decisions at the tills.” 

Once they have been used to carry groceries, the Co-op recommends that customers use the bags to line their food waste recycling caddies. The bags have been designed to decompose into peat-free compost along with household food waste collections and to degrade in home composting systems.

Last year, Co-op trialled an in-store collection system for "scrunchable" plastics, including carriers bags, yoghurt pots and food wrappers, which will be processed into waste disposal bin liners to be used by the retailer.

The Co-op recently moved the deadline for ensuring that 100% of the packaging on its own-brand lines is easy-to-recycle forward from 2023 to 2021. The retailer will ensure that its own-brand packaging can be collected via kerbside collections or through in-stores systems.

Co-op has also created new guidance which it has sent to the government, urging for policy to require all major retailers to report on reusable bags as well as single-use variants. The retailer believes it will provide greater understanding of the true impact of the 10p levy.

The UK government has repeatedly claimed that its decision to introduce a 10p charge for ‘bags for life’ and mandate large retailers to remove single-use bags has reduced plastics littering and pollution. According to one study for the journal Science of the Total Environment, 30% less plastic bags were found on seabeds around Europe in 2018 than in 2010, largely due to new legislation in Ireland and Denmark as well as the UK.

However, Greenpeace and the Environmental Investigation Agency recorded a 26% surge in ‘bags for life’ sales between 2017 and 2019, arguing that the bags were increasing the plastics waste footprint of supermarkets.

Responding to the announcement, Sian Sutherland, A Plastic Planet co-founder, said: "We applaud the Co-op not only for highlighting the fake numbers currently quoted on plastic bags and the fact that bags for life have more than replaced the amount of plastic being used for flimsy bags, but also how they have given the compostable bag a different mission. 

"It is not a compostable shopping bag; it’s the liner for a food waste bin that you can bring your groceries home in first. Result - less plastic in our food waste; more food waste collected; healthier soil. This should be mandated for all bags in future to avoid confusion for the waste industry. If they can do it in Italy, we can do it here in UK."

The news comes after Morrisons started removing all plastic versions of its "bags for life" from stores nationwide, in favour of paper and other reusable options, in a move that will save 3,200 tonnes of plastic each year.

Shoppers will instead be able to purchase water and tear-resistant paper bags that can hold up to 16kg, costing 30p. Other reusable options include string, jute, cotton and reusable woven bags, priced between 75p and £2.50.

The retailer claims that removing every plastic bag from stores nationwide will save 3,200 tonnes of plastic each year. A life cycle assessment carried out by The University of Sheffield found that the paper bag replacements that a lower carbon footprint than the plastics versions.

Sainsbury’s ocean plastics

In related news, Sainsbury’s has this week rolled out new products in packaging consisting of recycled plastics collected from coastal regions.

Working with its supplier Sharpak, more than a third (34%) of Sainsbury’s fresh fish and three quarters (80%) of strawberry punnets will be sold using packaging made from plastic rescued from coastal areas.

According to the retailer, this move will prevent around 297 tonnes of plastic from entering the ocean each year. More than 39.5 million items brought from Sainsbury’s will be packaged in the recycled material, according to the retailer.

Sainsbury’s director of product, packaging and innovation Claire Hughes said: “Using Prevented Ocean Plastic is one change we’re making to our supply chain to help us remove, reduce, recycle and reuse plastic.

“Not only will it have a positive environmental impact by preventing plastic from polluting the ocean, but it will also have an important social impact by allowing our customers to make sustainable choices and support overseas coastal communities at risk of ocean plastic pollution.”

The supermarket is notably striving to halve its plastic use by 2025 and recently began collecting hard-to-recycle flexible plastic film at 63 of its stores and will use the material to trial an innovative new recycling process.

Matt Mace 



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