Making a point about wasted plastic

How many of us will unpack today's big supermarket shop and simply stuff a dozen or so plastic carrier bags into a drawer and forget about them - at least until they start to overflow and end up in the bin?

How many of us will unpack today's big supermarket shop and simply stuff a dozen or so plastic carrier bags into a drawer and forget about them - at least until they start to overflow and end up in the bin?

Every year the average Briton takes home about 300 throwaway bags, many of which blow around the streets or clog up landfill - in some cases likely to take up to 1,000 years to decompose.

Over the years there have been many suggestions to deal with this scourge - from degradable bags and banning branding to taxing shoppers and bags for life - but on August 14 Tesco will add its option to the list.

The UK's largest retailer is aiming to cut the 4bn plastic bags it dishes out annually by 25pc within two years by awarding Clubcard points to people who recycle old carriers or pack their shopping in other bags.

The chain has opted not to follow the example of Swedish firm Ikea by charging customers for new bags.

Instead it will give its 13million Clubcard holders one point for every bag they do not take from stores.

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Points will be awarded to shoppers who reuse old plastic bags - even those from rival chains - or bring other bags.

The Clubcard points will be redeemed as usual. They are worth 1p each or up to four times that amount if used for special deals.

Clubcard holders will also get one voucher each to redeem against a durable bag for life in Tesco stores.

But it is not a new idea; Sainsbury used to offer customers 1p off their bill for every bag they brought back and reused but found hardly any were taking it up.

They replaced the scheme two years ago with plastic bag recycling bins and other options.

The problem is, if people do not already reuse bags, how much of an incentive is 1p going to be?

Friends of the Earth supermarket campaigner Sandra Bell was unimpressed by the Tesco scheme. “This is typical of the greenwash that Tesco has been churning out over recent months,” she said.

“Even if it meets its target to reduce the number of bags being used, Tesco will still be handing out three billion plastic bags a year.

“And this is just a drop in the ocean compared to the mountains of packaging waste the chain creates.”

All Tesco carrier bags will be degradable by the end of next month and the chain has brought in bigger, thicker bags in some stores so people use fewer.

But the more cynical might even think Tesco could be doing it to save itself money while stoking its green image.

After all, the European Commission is set to impose a 10-15pc import tax on plastic bags imported from Thailand and China.

The duties, expected to get final approval at the end of this month, aim to correct imbalances in the market.

The British Retail Consortium said the tax would cost the UK an estimated £50m in extra import duties.

Tesco chief executive Sir Terry Leahy said the chain had been working on ways to reduce carrier bag use.

“The results of our research tell us that we have to move the emphasis away from trying to force change and onto rewarding positive behaviour. In other words a more carrot than stick approach,” he said.

Local environmental quality minister Ben Bradshaw welcomed the scheme, saying: “Research shows that the most environmentally friendly thing to do is to get maximum use out of bags, whatever their material, and then recycle them.”

And Dr Simon Gerrard, from the Norfolk-born CRed carbon reduction campaign, said: “Reusing plastic bags is always a better option than throwing them away. One of the main reasons is it reduces waste but at the same time it also reduces carbon as there is a lot of it stacked up in waste.”

But if we really want to make a difference, perhaps we should follow Ireland's example.

In 2002, supermarkets were forced to charge shoppers a 15c (then 9p) tax on each new plastic bag and within a couple of months many had switched to reusing.

Bangladesh, for example, banned plastic bags outright after they were found to have choked the drainage system and caused the massive floods in 1988 and again 10 years later.

Earlier this year members of the Women's Institute in England and Wales held a campaign where they urged supermarkets to charge for plastic bags and phase out practices such as shrink wrapping vegetables.

It seems, in part at least, that supermarkets are responding.

And it is up to us to make sure our drawers and cupboards are no longer over flowing with this plastic nemesis.

When you have unloaded the shopping today put the bags back in the car ready for next time.