British retailer Tesco abandons biodegradable bags / Concerns over environmental impact and physical strength / Additive supplier defends technology / Consultation in Scotland could lead to bag levy
In the United Kingdom the humble, single-use, plastic carrier bag is again at the forefront of controversy. Plans to introduce a bag tax in Scotland were abandoned in 2006 (see of 18.10.2006), but the Scottish Government (Edinburgh; is to undertake a consultation later this year to establish ways in which carrier bag usage can be reduced, with a levy one of the options to be discussed. More important from a technological viewpoint is the news that high street retailer Tesco (Cheshunt / UK; stopped using biodegradable carriers at the end of 2010 because of concerns over their environmental impact and physical strength.

The Tesco carrier bags were oxo-biodegradable, but the company started to query their degradability characteristics after research by the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra, London; cast doubts over claims that bags would degrade to water, carbon dioxide and biomass within 18 months. Primarily, the research report concluded that degradability would depend on the conditions in which the bag found itself after use; if deprived of light and oxygen, for example, it would not degrade at all.

Tesco said its decision to dispense with the biodegradable additive was underpinned by a detailed review of the science, which enabled it to understand the full life-cycle environmental impacts of its carrier bags. Also, a Tesco 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.” The latest Tesco carrier bags are not degradable, but contain 15% recycled polymer.

Commenting on the Defra research findings, John Williams, head of materials at the National Non Food Crop Centre (NNFCC, Heslington, York / UK;, said the NNFCC had been putting pressure on the supply chain for several years to consider the negative impacts of oxo-biodegradable bags and move to more environmentally-friendly alternatives. He added: “Artificially accelerating the degradation of an oil-based plastic is neither economically or environmentally sensible.”

Unsurprisingly, oxo-biodegradable additive supplier Symphony Environmental Technologies (Borehamwood / UK; was quick to defend the technology, although its d2w product was not used in the Tesco bags. It said the use of an oxo-biodegradable additive would not weaken carrier bags if they were suitably made. Symphony also said that recyclable claims were irrelevant, adding that, “Our d2w bags can be made with recyclate and can themselves be recycled together with normal plastics during their useful life.”

Aside from its technical and technological comments, Symphony said it believes the real reason Tesco took its withdrawal decision was one of cost, even though “the on-cost is very small”. The additive supplier termed the retailing giant an environmentally responsible company, but believes it has taken a retrograde step and should think again.

The latest figures show that there has been an increase in single-use carrier bags in Scotland, despite retailers and the public having made significant progress over the last five years in reducing consumption. As a result, the Scottish Government says it wants to tackle the issue head-on and announced plans to consult on ways to reduce the numbers. One option is the introduction of a levy. Details of the consultation document have yet to be finalised.

Announcing the plans, environment secretary Richard Lochhead said: “Plastic bags are a scourge on the environment – that’s why we are so determined to drastically cut back on their use.” He added that the intention is to phase out the use of free plastic bags in supermarkets in order to create a zero-waste society.

Elsewhere in the UK, the five pence (5p) levy agreed by the Welsh Assembly Government (Cardiff / Wales; is set to be introduced on 1 October 2011. A consultation on a potential levy was launched in Northern Ireland last month (see of 28.07.2011). On a more supranational level, the EU has just wrapped up a survey asking citizens about a possible plastic bag ban, a move that has raised the ire of several industry associations – for a detailed overview on the plastic bag issue at the European level, see of 23.08.2011.
24.08.2011 [220138-0]
Published on 24.08.2011

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