Choose your bags carefully

The 5p charge for single-use plastic bags first came into effect in Wales in 2011. Northern Ireland and Scotland followed suit, and finally England introduced charges in 2015.


The idea was to discourage shoppers from taking new bags every time they shop, and it had an enormous effect: the measure is estimated to have reduced the number of single-use bags by 13 billion in England alone. That’s a reduction of 86 per cent.

A study of the seabed around Britain in 2018 found 30 per cent fewer plastic bags than before the charge was introduced.

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But think carefully when you replace your single-use bag, as things are not as clear cut as first appears.

One option is biodegradable bags. Designed to be broken down by bacteria, biodegradable plastic is generally thought to be a kinder option for the environment. However, it needs specific conditions to be broken down. A study by the University of Plymouth found that biodegradable bags left in soil or in a marine environment could still hold a full bag of shopping after three years.

So, should we choose cotton bags instead? Well, maybe not. Between the energy, water, fertiliser and pesticide used, cotton is environmentally intensive to produce, and on top of that, it can’t be recycled. A Danish study found that a cotton bag has to be reused over 7,000 times to have the same environmental impact as a single-use plastic bag, not including littering.

Maximise your recycling

A 2018 study from the University of Leeds found that only 16 per cent of household plastics collected for recycling ended up being sent for processing.

According to Dr Sharon George, lecturer in Green Technology and Environmental Sustainability at Keele University, bales of plastic recycling can easily be contaminated with the wrong type of plastic. “A lot of waste gets rejected because it’s been contaminated with plastic or other materials that shouldn’t be in there,” George says. “Being a bit more vigilant and making sure we are recycling the right things can make sure that that waste will get recycled.”

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Food packaging is especially susceptible to contamination. “This is a big reason the value of the waste goes down,” says George. “It can be contaminated by just not being washed out.”

Trying to remove contaminants from the rest of the material can also cause problems: according to an analysis of recycling contamination by business analytics firm Croner-i, attempting to remove a single contaminant takes several kilogrammes of recyclable material along with it.

The biggest thing you can do is be aware of what can and can’t be recycled in your local area, says George. Don’t assume that something can be recycled just because it’s plastic. “That definitely makes it worse, because that then can potentially mean that a whole collection then gets rejected, and either incinerated or sent to landfill,” she explains.

Reduce your food packaging

Every year, the average European citizen throws out 30 kilogrammes of plastic food packaging. There are the more obvious offenders, such as Marks and Spencer’s ‘cauliflower steak’ - a single slice of cauliflower on a plastic tray, in a plastic wrapping - but there are many products that come unnecessarily wrapped.

Try buying fruit and vegetables loose where possible. Waitrose announced in June that a store in Oxford is trialling a selection of packaging-free groceries, including pasta and rice, beer and wine, and some cleaning products, to encourage shoppers to bring their own reusable containers.

Also bear in mind that less packaging is not necessarily better: recyclable material is key. “If you know [at the time] which bits of plastic can be recycled, it might make you think at the checkout whether what you’ve got in your basket is recyclable,” George says. “If you’ve got a choice between two items and one is in a container that you can recycle and one is in one that you can’t, go with the one you can.”

Is single-use food packaging always bad?

Many foods can survive transportation without being wrapped in plastic. However, for certain foods, a cellophane wrapping or a plastic container can vastly extend their shelf-life.

Cucumbers, which last only three days unwrapped, can stay fresh for up to two weeks in a plastic wrapping. New potatoes in a plastic bag last longer before they turn green, and keeping grapes in plastic containers catches the fruits that fall off the vine, reducing waste by 20 per cent.

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Sara RigbyOnline staff writer, BBC Science Focus

Sara is the online staff writer at BBC Science Focus. She has an MPhys in mathematical physics and loves all things space, dinosaurs and dogs.