The number of single-use carrier bags handed out in the UK has fallen for the fourth consecutive year and the total cut by 4.6 billion since independent monitoring began in 2006, according to the British Retail Consortium (BRC).

Stephen Robertson, BRC director general, said: “This is a tremendous achievement by supermarkets, customers and staff, especially as between 2006 and 2009 the amount of goods sold by participating retailers grew by over 6%.

“The sustained reduction shows that customers are permanently adopting the habit of re-using their bags.”

Leading supermarket customers used 43 per cent fewer single use carrier bags in 2009-10 than in 2006 – a total of 6.1 billion as against 10.7 billion four years earlier.

The total weight of material used over the same period has more than halved, the BRC said.

It claims this is a “ringing endorsement” of the a voluntary approach, which rejects compulsory bag bans or taxes in favour of allowing retailers to use methods that work best for their customers.

Annual totals for use of ‘single-use’ bags have fallen every year since 2006 without the need for legislation.

In the year to May, 43% fewer bags were handed out than in 2006.

“The continuous decrease in total annual bag use demonstrates the voluntary approach continues to make good progress through individual retailer initiatives that take customers with them,” said Mr Robertson, when the results were revealed last Wednesday (August 25).

“The reduction in bag use is great news, but it’s the halving of the total weight of single-use carrier bags which shows retailers really scoring on the crucial issue of reducing environmental impact.

“Retailers are working hard on a range of other environmental measures, such as reducing food waste, reducing and redesigning packaging, as well as providing customers with recycling information through the on-pack recycling label.”

The seven supermarkets involved in the survey are Asda, Co-operative Group, which now includes Somerfield, Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Waitrose.

A Marks & Spencer spokesman said: “We started charging for food carrier bags in all stores in May 2008.

Last year we used 89 million single-use carrier bags in our food business – over 80 per cent less than 2006/07.

“This has been achieved by encouraging customers to re-use, use bags for life and charging 5p per carrier bag. Across our stores, carrier bag use is down by 64 per cent since 2006.”

David Gibbs

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