Tesco makes u-turn on biodegradable plastic bags

Tesco has ditched its 'eco-friendly' carrier bags after research revealed they may be more environmentally damaging than conventional plastic bags.

Last year, the retailer handed out more than two billion oxo biodegradable bags to customers in a bid to reduce its plastic waste, but it has now made a u-turn on its bag policy.

Oxo biodegradable bags are made of non-renewable plastics which degrade into water,carbon dioxide and biomass in just 18 months, provided there is the presence of oxygen and sunlight.

However, a Defra study concluded degradability would depend on where and under what conditions the bag ended up in after use – casting fresh doubts over whether oxo biodegradable bags are a better alternative to traditional plastic bags, as some manufacturers claim.

According to the European Plastics Recyclers Association, an oxo biodegradable bag is unlikely to degrade in landfill because of the absence of light and oxygen.

The National Non-Food Crops Centre (NNFCC) has been working to raise awareness of the negative impact of the oxo bags and encourage more environmentally-friendly alternatives for a number of years.

NNFCC’S science & technology writer, Dr Matthew Aylott, said the Centre worked in partnership with Defra and WRAP on the research and is continuing to work with the Government to drive sustainability through legislation. It is also working to promote the recycling of plastic bags and the use of bio-plastics.

Aylott said: “We have been trying to encourage people to look at the whole lifecycle of the carrier bag. It has proved quite controversial as the company that put the additive into the oxo bag has been very vocal about its benefits. However, these bags do more harm than good as they don’t tend to break down in landfill.”

NNFCC’s head of materials, Dr John Williams, added: “Plastics are excellent materials,
highly functional and energy efficient. Promoting sensible and certified routes to reuse, recycle and dispose of plastics, will improve sustainablility. Artificially accelerating the degradation of an oil-based plastic is neither economically or environmentally sensible.”

A spokesman for Tesco said: “We took the decision to remove the biodegradable additive because we believed it contributed towards bags becoming weaker and to help better promote their reuse and recycling at end-of-life.”

“This decision was underpinned by a detailed review of the science to help us understand the full life-cycle environmental impacts of our carrier bags.”

New Tesco bags are not biodegradable but instead contain 15% recycled material, in comparison Sainsbury’s bags contain 50% recycled material.

Carys Matthews

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