The media and the green lobby are, as ever, venting their fury but retailers are in no mood for taking plastic bags away from tills, says Ronan Hegarty

In the week that America almost ran out of money, the Daily Mail chose to run two of its front pages about the impact of the humble plastic carrier bag.

While the image of a seagull struggling to free itself from a plastic straitjacket is heartbreaking, it’s hard to believe that a 5% increase in the use of plastic carrier bags is quite as important a story as the idea of the US going bankrupt or the turmoil in Libya or Syria.

Retailers claim the environmental impact of plastic bags is minor and to continue to flag it up as a major issue is a distraction from the big strides they are making in terms of cutting carbon emissions, water use, waste going to landfill, road miles… the list goes on.

“Retailers, working with consumers, will continue to do all they can to drive down the number of bags being given out wherever possible but it’s time to accept bags are not the be all and end all of environmental issues,” argues Bob Gordon, BRC head of environment.

Lobby groups such as Friends of the Earth are not convinced.

“Plastic bags are choking our wildlife and clogging up our homes getting in the habit of carrying around a reusable bag is a great way to make sure you don’t need to pick up a throwaway plastic bag for your shopping,” says waste campaigner Julian Kirby. “Handing out millions of plastic bags for free sends the wrong message to shoppers a small charge has slashed their use in Ireland and could help cut UK bag waste too.”

So if it is such a minor issue, why don’t the major supermarket groups follow the lead of M&S and simply stop issuing free single-use bags? This would clearly stop a great deal of negative publicity and allow them to move the debate on to the areas in which they are making a real difference.

The answer, it seems, is a reluctance to upset consumers.

When eking out any kind of growth is as tough as it has ever been, now is not the time to start upsetting customers, say retailers. And apparently that is exactly what would happen if they started charging for plastic bags.

“Customers really don’t like the idea of charging for plastic bags,” says one supermarket insider. “It really can cause a lot of concern to shoppers. They are looking to take the bags to use at home more, instead of having to buy bin bags.”

Retailers also point out that although numbers may have risen in the past year, this doesn’t tell the whole story regarding their impact as most have been working hard to develop thinner, lighter bags, which has resulted in a major reduction in the volume of plastic used. “We have reduced the environmental impact of our bags by 63% by reducing their size, weight and increasing their recycled content to 50%,” says a Sainsbury’s spokesman.

Retailers will point to these weight reductions and to bag use falling 40% since the issue first became a flashpoint in 2006. They also argue that one year’s figures do not necessarily point to a reversal of the longer-term trend.

But it is also clear there isn’t an appetite among retailers to go much further at this stage. While M&S’s decision to charge has resulted in an 80% reduction in the number of bags it gives away, the supermarkets say the disruption for their shoppers would be greater as their customers generally buy more goods per visit.

And so it seems the issue will be left to the government. “We certainly wouldn’t support legislation to ban free carriers,” says the supermarket insider. “But it would be easier for us to sell this to customers if it were the government making us do it rather than it being our choice.”

Bgs by numbers

- 40% fewer plastic carrier bags taken by customers in 2010 than 2006
- 5% more bags (6.4 billion) handed out in 2010 compared with the 12 months to May 2010
- 7% more bags handed out by English supermarkets in 2010
- 14% fewer bags handed out by Northern Irish supermarkets in 2010