Page last updated at 18:32 GMT, Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Supermarkets 'to halve bags used'

By Mark Lobel
BBC News

A plastic bag
The government asked shops to get customers to cut bag use by a quarter

Four of the UK's leading supermarkets say they are confident that by next Easter they will have halved the number of plastic bags handed to customers.

They were speaking after Waitrose and Asda told MPs they had already achieved 30% cuts by moving bags under counters so shoppers had to ask for them.

Supermarkets agreed to voluntary annual 25% cuts in bag use last year - heading off the option of plastic bag charges.

UK retailers hand out an estimated 13 billion free plastic bags every year.

Use of the bags, which take about 1,000 years to decay, is being examined as part of an inquiry by the Commons environment and rural affairs select committee into waste management in England.

Asda's head of sustainability and ethics Justin Walker-Palin told the committee the store had achieved a 30% reduction so far.

Mr Walker-Palin said the best results came from "lower demographic" shops after "taking a risk" last Christmas of removing carrier bags in all shops from above the counter.

Instead they were placed under the control of cashiers - who were told to have a conversation with the shopper before handing them over.

There is still a very significant debate to be had by retailers with their customers over packaging
Michael Jack MP
Environment committee chairman

He added: "We're aiming for a 50% reduction by next Easter."

Following the meeting - during which Mr Walker-Palin explained it was cheaper for the company not to hand plastic bags out - committee chairman Michael Jack said that "Asda made a very good business case as to why plastic bags should be dispensed with".

Waitrose, represented at the hearing by the John Lewis Partnership's corporate social responsibility manager Gemma Lacey, has also seen a drop in carrier bag usage of nearly 30% this year, a reduction of 40 million bags.

The supermarket is also optimistic that it can achieve a 50% reduction by May.

Other supermarkets have also managed to achieve similar reductions. Usage of Sainsbury's free carrier bags has gone down by 28%, and reusable bags sales are up 200% over the last year.

Customers can get a weekly "bag reminder" text message sent to their phones, just before they usually go shopping, to encourage them to take bags with them.

Sainsbury's chief executive Justin King told the BBC: "We are over halfway to reducing bag usage by 50% by April 2009, and we hope our new texting reminder service will drive change in a practical way that helps customers change their bag usage habits."

Tesco customers "have saved over two billion carrier bags" since August 2006, a spokesman said.

By the spring, the company expects to be giving away 50% fewer bags than 2006, driven by incentives using their loyalty card scheme.

Morrisons' customers, which average 10 million a week, have been offered cardboard boxes, used to deliver products to the store, as an alternative to plastic bags at check-out.

They have also had to ask for more plastic bags instead of having an unlimited supply available on the counter.

A Morrisons spokesman told the BBC: "Our carrier bag use has fallen 22% since last year".

In May the supermarket chain gave away 10 million "multi-trip" bags, made from recycled material which it says "significantly reduced" the number of bags it used.

Recycling units are now available in every branch and the company aims to "increase the recycled content of standard plastic carrier bags to 25% by the end of 2008 and to 50% by the end of 2010".

Waste not

On broader environmental issues, Asda told the committee it had diverted 99% of operational waste from going to landfills in two of its 353 stores, in Bootle near Liverpool and Horwich near Manchester - by removing all biodegradable waste and using it to generate electricity, and taking out all recyclables.

The company aims to divert over 90% of operational waste in this way in 20 stores by February 2009.

During the committee meeting, all parties seemed to agree action was necessary on the ever-increasing amount of textiles going to landfill which, in the past five years, said Mr Jack, was up from 5% to 30%.

Mr Walker-Palin said that Asda had reduced carbon emissions from fleet transport by 25% since 2005 - and was on course to reach its 40% target by the end of next year.

Landfill site
Fresh food with ever-lighter packaging may actually increase landfill waste

Waitrose, whose company vehicles drove 17.5 million miles last year, is aiming for a reduction of 15% in energy-related transport CO2 emissions from deliveries by 2013, compared with 2005 levels.

Although no figures are yet available on their progress, trials of lorries using rapeseed oil have shown their carbon footprint "is up to 20% lower".

Tesco says it is on track to halve the carbon emissions created per case of goods delivered by 2012, compared with January this year, as they are "investing in state of the art technologies, cutting unnecessary road miles, and using alternatives to lorries such as canal barges and trains".

Packaging worries

As consultations continue over the next few weeks, Mr Jack believes "there is still a very significant debate to be had by retailers with their customers over packaging".

He is concerned by the "extensive and expensive" packaging still on show in many stores.

Mr Walker-Palin said his chain would tackle this problem by convening a "group of experts" at the beginning of 2009 to consider "packaging optimisation".

The group would focus on bringing in further "lightweighting" of their packaging - they say their packaging is 25% lighter than last year.

One option would be to introduce resealable devices, like zip-locks, to keep products from going off and adding to landfill waste - though such devices would, in turn, add weight to the packaging.

The company also wants to introduce a US-style "packaging score card" to indicate how environmentally friendly its products are.

The committee's report on waste is scheduled to be finalised and published at the end of January.

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