A paper bag among fruit and vegetables on a supermarket conveyor belt

Image: Mikael Buck/Morrisons

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The war on plastic: Morrisons trials paper bags

Supermarket chain Morrisons has announced an eight-week trial of 20p paper bags at a handful of its branches.

The bags will be reusable and recyclable, and the supermarket said the scheme was being introduced after customers raised concerns about the environment.

The new bags are accredited by the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification, which means they have been sourced from forests that are managed responsibly.

It follows an announcement from Waitrose that the chain will be giving money to projects that reduce plastic pollution, using money from the 5p charge on plastic bags.

Trends in plastic bag use

A levy on single-use plastic bags was introduced in England in October 2015. Since then, shoppers have been paying 5p for each one they use.

According to government figures, the new law resulted in an 83% fall in plastic bag use at the seven biggest supermarkets between April 2016 and April 2017. About 1.3 billion were sold during that time. Between April 2017 and April 2018, that figure dropped again to about 1 billion.

Morrisons raised the 5p charge to 10p last year, reducing overall bag sales by 25%. Now, the chain is raising the price again, asking customers for 15p per bag - still cheaper than the 20p paper alternative.

Apple,s onions and bananas in plastic bags.

Many supermarkets are also switching to paper bags for loose fruit and vegetables. Image: Shutterstock.com.


Museum plastics research

Plastic bags never biodegrade, but they can eventually break down into tiny pieces called microplastics. These are having an enormous impact on some UK estuaries and the fish that live in them.

Museum scientists are studying microplastics in some of the rivers around Britain. In 2018, they found that more than a quarter of fish in the Thames Estuary are eating plastic.

These tiny pollutants are also a problem in the open ocean, and have made their way into the food chain, meaning that they will also be in some of your meals.

Cutting down on plastic bags, bottles, coffee cups, and wet wipes will help to reduce the level of pollution in rivers.

A piece of clear film found in the gut of a dogfish in the Thames.

A piece of clear film found in the gut of a dogfish in the Thames. Image: Alex McGoran.


Waitrose's Million Pound Challenge

Waitrose has just launched a funding scheme called Plan Plastic: The Million Pound Challenge.

It will give away £1 million to projects that can demonstrate an impact on plastic pollution both now and in the future. Applications for Plan Plastic are open until 24 February, charities, academic bodies, social enterprises, schools and colleges can all apply for funds. The money being used has been raised using the chain's 5p bag charge.

However, Waitrose has no specific reduction targets on plastic in its shops - and neither do Aldi, Co-op, Sainsbury's or Tesco. Currently Waitrose is working towards a goal of making its own-brand packaging recyclable, reusable or compostable, but has not committed to any plans to ditch plastic altogether.

Is enough being done?

Supermarkets are still responsible for the manufacture of an estimated 800,000 tonnes of single-use packaging every year.

Some campaign groups have suggested that the big retailers are not doing nearly enough to reduce plastic on the shelves. A recent Greenpeace report claimed that most retailers are still in the early stages of monitoring and managing plastics in their supply chains.

  • In 2018, Asda promised to report on its annual plastic footprint, and said it was going to eliminate 10% of plastic from its own brand packaging by February 2019.
  • Meanwhile, Iceland pledged to remove plastic packaging from its own label products completely by 2023. Iceland came top of Greenpeace's plastic policy survey, which ranked the biggest ten supermarkets on their plastic policies.
  • Tesco, the UK's biggest supermarket chain, has pledged to ban only non-recyclable plastic by 2019.

However, simply banning all plastic might not be the most effective way of protecting a range of global environments. Think tank The Green Alliance has suggested that the focus should be on making plastic recyclable instead of banning it altogether. The careful use of plastic containers and wrapping can help prevent food waste and therefore cut down on agriculture, a big producer of greenhouse gases.

Most of the big supermarkets have signed up to the UK Plastics Pact, which aims to tackle waste and launched in April 2018. It asks businesses to eliminate unnecessary plastic and make packaging reusable and recyclable by 2025.

What can I do to reduce plastic?

Small lifestyle changes help to reduce the plastic levels in rivers around the UK.

Don't flush sanitary products or any kind of wet wipe down toilets, even the ones which claim to be flushable.

Museum researcher Alex McGoran says, 'Flushable does not mean biodegradable. Flushing anything down the toilet other than human waste and toilet paper increases the chances of microplastics in the water system.'

Products for washing machines are also available that are designed to catch excess microfibres coming from clothes.

You can cut down on single-use plastic by purchasing reusable water bottles, coffee cups and lunchboxes.

Alex adds, 'There are many alternatives to plastic out there, although they may be less convenient. However, the more we avoid buying plastic products, the more companies will start to think about sustainable solutions.'