Myth of 'eco-friendly' bags exposed

.as Tesco dumps 'green' carriers that may actually harm the environment

By Sean Poulter

Last updated at 8:35 AM on 16th August 2011

Tesco has stopped using biodegradable carrier bags because they may be even worse for the environment than the conventional type.

The decision is an embarrassment for the chain, which hailed its introduction of the bags as the centrepiece of its efforts to tackle litter and waste.

Tesco stores hand out more throwaway plastic bags than any other retailer in the country – well over two billion a year.
Dumped: Tesco has stopped using its biodegradable bags after it was discovered they could actually be worse for the environment than the convention type

Most supermarket carriers are used for only 20 minutes before being thrown away, but they can take up to 1,000 years to decompose.

Many end up in landfill while others blight the countryside, beaches and the sea.

Tesco claimed that the biodegradable bags, which include an ingredient that makes them break down after 20-36 months, would defeat this problem.

However, it is pulling them from stores after five years following independent scientific research funded by the Government which suggests they may damage wildlife and the environment.

Tesco said it began changing to new bags, which are not biodegradable but include 15 per cent recycled material, earlier this year.

However, the company has made no official announcement on the change, and its website still boasts about the company's commitment to using biodegradable bags.
Special ingredient: Tesco claimed the biodegradable bags would decompose after around three years to end the blight of plastic waste

It states: 'We recognise that many of our bags may go to landfill, so we have made our carrier bags biodegradable. This means that they break down into water, carbon dioxide and biomass, which have minimal impact upon the environment.'

Tesco's failure means other measures to tackle the blight caused by carrier bags are now necessary.

An independent study published last year raised serious questions about the value of the biodegradable bags.

Experts from Loughborough University pulled together all the published research into such bags and concluded that they may do more harm than good.
Blight: Millions of plastic bags issued by the nation's supermarkets litter the country's beaches and the sea

Their report warned that these bags can litter the countryside for up to five years before they degrade, far longer than the supermarket claims. This is because they are not exposed to enough of the heat and sunlight they need to break down.

The additive used in the bags to make them break down also means that they cannot be recycled.

The biodegradable bags do eventually crumble into a fine dust, according to the researchers.

But they said: 'Although these bags are regarded as beneficial by the producers, concerns have been raised that these particles of plastic may be ingested by invertebrates, birds, animals or fish.'

No evidence was found that the fragments cause harm, 'but neither was there evidence that they do not', the authors added.

Explaining the decision to drop the bags, Tesco said it was based on scientific advice and also addressed customers' concerns that they were weak and likely to break.

A spokesman said: 'We took the decision to remove the biodegradable additive because we believed it contributed towards bags becoming weaker and to help better promote their re-use and recycling at end of life.

'This decision was underpinned by a detailed review of the science to help us understand the full life-cycle environmental impacts of our carrier bags.'

The Daily Mail's Banish the Bags campaign, which began in 2008 and is calling for a drastic reduction in the billions of bags handed out each year, has gained support from all major political parties.

Yesterday Scottish ministers announced the start of a public consultation to find ways to limit the use of plastic bags. They are considering a compulsory charge for the throwaway bags.
Wales will introduce a charge of 5p on all single-use bags from October 1, including those from major supermarkets such as Tesco.

Northern Ireland is bringing in charges on April 1, 2013 and a public consultation is taking place about how much to charge.

England looks likely to be on its own in failing to take action, but David Cameron and Nick Clegg are under pressure to follow suit at Westminster.

Despite pledges by the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister while they were in opposition, the Coalition currently has no policy on plastic bag reduction.

Last month it emerged that an extra 330million plastic bags have been handed out by supermarkets in the past year. It is the first time the total has gone up in five years.

In 2010/2011, around 6.4billion single-use plastic bags were given out, compared with 6.1billion in 2009/10, according to figures from WRAP, the Government's waste reduction agency. That means everyone in the country is given 8.6 bags per month on average.

Marks & Spencer was the first major chain to bring in a 5p charge, in 2008.

Published in at August 16th 2011. To the original article.

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