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Wednesday, 8 May, 2002, 12:38 GMT 13:38 UK
Planet Earth's new nemesis?
Carrier bag
British shoppers get though eight billion a year, but elsewhere the humble plastic bag has become a menace, with one country even banning them outright. Could the UK follow suit?

Supermarket shopping in Ireland is much the same as anywhere in Europe, or indeed the rest of the world.

But one element British shoppers would find distinctly foreign is the need to pay for plastic bags at the checkout.

We get though more than 130 each a year
Since the beginning of March, supermarkets have been forced to charge shoppers a 15c (9p) tax on each new plastic bag.

The idea was introduced as an attempt to curb the litter problem created by so many bags. And anecdotally, at least, it seems to be working.

Within a couple of months, shoppers have switched to re-using carrier bags. Customers now routinely turn up "pre-armed" with a clutch of polythene and one of the biggest chains, Superquinn, says the number of bags it distributes has dropped by 97.5%.

Being thoughtless

Now there is speculation that the UK could follow suit. Environment minister Michael Meacher is said to be interested in the scheme and the environment department says it has "concerns about the number of plastic bags that are routinely handed over by supermarkets".

Plastic bag being packed
At 9p a go, would you bring your own?
It's not just litter that is the problem. Environmentalists decry our thoughtless reliance on plastic bags - Britons get through eight billion a year, equivalent to 133 per person.

Made of polyethylene - more commonly known as polythene - they are hazardous to manufacture and are said to take up to 1,000 years to decompose.

Elsewhere in the world, their role in environmental destruction is even more drastic and so, it seems, a revolt has begun against the humble plastic bag.

In March, Bangladesh slapped an outright ban on all polythene bags after they were found to have been the main culprit during the 1988 and 1998 floods that submerged two-thirds of the country. The problem was that discarded bags were choking the drainage system

'Plastic flower'

Taiwan is moving to ban the free distribution of plastic bags, while, next month, the government in Singapore will launch a campaign to discourage their use.

UK's plastic bags
32% come from Malaysia
24% from China
20% from Thailand
In India, cows are ingesting plastic bags as they forage for food on the street. They then end up choking or starving to death. The same happens to turtles, which commonly mistake plastic bags for jellyfish, say environmentalists.

In South Africa, they have been dubbed the "national flower" because so many can be seen flapping from fences and caught in bushes.

They are even big in America, despite all those Hollywood films featuring "moms", returning from the supermarket, overburdened with paper bags. Four out of five grocery bags in the US are now plastic.

From paper to plastic

Yet this trend is a fairly recent phenomenon; the result of advancements in manufacturing.

A novel way of "recycling" your shopping bags
Thirty years ago paper still ruled. In the UK, the switch to plastic was a result of growing competition in the supermarket sector, says Dr Graham Godwin, a former technical executive at Marks and Spencer.

"Plastic was the material of choice in those days and it was more hygienic, if for example something spilt as you carried your shopping home."

It is also stronger and faired better in the damp British climate.

Crucially, however, plastic bags have become cheaper than paper. The so called "T-shirt" bags that are freely available at supermarkets are made of lightweight, high-density polythene.

'A people problem'

They cost and weigh a fraction of the older and thicker, stretchy polythene bag that shops used to charge for.

Cow in India
Cows in India are mistakenly eating bags
So has the bottom finally fallen out of the plastic bag market?

Not surprisingly, those with a stake in the industry deny reports of its demise. The fault is with human behaviour, not the bags themselves, says Peter Woodall of the Packaging and Industrial Films Association.

"Lots of people recycle them as bin bags. If you make people pay for them, they will have to go out and buy separate bin bags," says Mr Woodall.

"Plastic requires a great deal less energy in manufacturing than paper and because the vast majority of our plastic bags are imported from Asia, a switch back to heavier paper bags, means it would take more energy to bring them over."

So for the meantime at least, British shoppers will continue to see plastic as fantastic.

See also:

03 Oct 01 | Asia-Pacific
Taiwan to ban free plastic bags
04 Mar 02 | Europe
A world drowning in litter
04 Mar 02 | Northern Ireland
NI shoppers 'would bring their own bags'
14 May 01 | South Asia
Bombay gets tough on plastic bags
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