We say plastic bags are for life, but they still end up hanging from trees

Not early blossom. Bob Collier/PA

The European Parliament has voted in a draft law aimed at halving the use of plastic bags across the continent by 2017, and further reducing them by at least 80% by 2019. This positive move is aimed at curbing the use of very thin plastic bags of less than 50 microns (0.05mm), which most often end up as flyblown litter in trees or break apart to be eaten by wildlife.

The suggested measures include levies on bags, taxes, and compulsory replacements with biodegradable alternatives. There have been some successes already, in Ireland and Denmark, for example. In research colleagues and I published in the Journal of Business Ethics, we found that individuals, government institutions, and large organisations all have a role to play in encouraging a change of behaviour towards ethical consumerism. This step forward by the European Parliament should encourage governments to act decisively and pass laws to accelerate the reduction in the use of wasteful and polluting plastic bags.

In February 2014, the UK government’s cross-party Environment Audit Committee made a call for all shops to be included in plans to introduce a 5p charge on plastic carrier bags in England. A similar scheme will be introduced in Scotland this autumn.

Evidence from Ireland, where a plastic bag tax (“plastax”) in 2002 led to a 94% drop in bag use within months and raised millions of euros in levies. In Wales, a similar levy cut the use of single use bags by up to 96%. Northern Ireland reported a slightly smaller but still significant reduction of around 80%. But a sustained change in behaviour towards the use of plastic bags will require clear and concise action and a joined-up approach to tackling the problem.

We found that supermarkets clearly had a key role in reducing the use of single-use carrier bags – the sort targeted by the European Parliament. The majority of respondents in our survey said they began using reusable “bags for life” in around 2008, which coincided with the introduction of the voluntary agreement between the British Retail Consortium, leading supermarkets and governments to reduce single-use carrier bags. Since the voluntary agreement ended in 2009, there has been a slow but steady increase in their use.

Source: Wrap, UK Voluntary Carrier Bag Monitoring (2013)

We also found that although 80% of respondents claim to own a bag for life, almost a third still regularly use free single-use plastic bags, which demonstrate that there is still a gap between attitudes and behaviour. Even though a vast majority of people say they own a bag for life, with a significant number claiming to do so for environmental reasons, many are still left lying around at home, forgotten and unused. More needs to be done to reduce the gap between people’s intentions and their actions. For example, initiatives such as supermarkets texting their customers to remind them to bring their own bags have proved to be very successful.

According to WRAP, the proportion of single-use bags as a percentage of total bags issued has remained stable since 2006, with single-use bags accounting for 95% and reuseable bags for life 5%. A unified effort from the European Parliament, together with member-state governments and major retailers could have a significant impact on the number of single-use bags being used. Their recommendations to use a combination of taxes and levies, marketing restrictions and bans to curb their use will be a positive step forward.