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Carrier bags  recyling

In 2015 it became mandatory for large businesses to charge for all single-use plastic carrier bags, leading supermarkets, and other retailers to cut the number of single-use carrier bags and introduce a variety of ‘bag for life’ alternatives.

According to the government: “The scheme aims to reduce the use of single-use plastic carrier bags, and the litter associated with them, by encouraging people to re-use bags” but what are the most environmentally friendly carrier bags?

When answering this question, there certain factors that need to be considered, from the initial sourcing of materials, manufacturing, and transportation of the carrier bag to its end-of-life journey with the customer. How long a carrier bag is used and how it is disposed of when unusable influences its environmental impact, and any bag that ultimately becomes litter is automatically the least environmentally friendly choice.

Common carrier bags available in supermarkets and retailers

HDPE carrier bag: Commonly recognized as a single-use carrier bag, usually charged at 5p

LDPE carrier bag: Heavy-duty plastic bags, commonly referred to as a ‘bag for life’ and readily available in supermarkets for a slightly higher cost than single-use bags but can be replaced free of charge when returned.

Non-woven polypropylene (PP) bags

The PP bag is a semi-rigid bag that is stronger and more durable than a bag for life and is intended to be reused multiple times.

Cotton bags

Also known as a tote or canvas bag, it is designed to be used repeatedly for a long time.

Carrier bags  and their Global Warming Potential (GWP)

Data from WRAP’s report Quantifying the composition of municipal waste shows the global warming potential (GWP) of single-use and bag-for-life carrier bags when not reused after their primary use.

This table shows that reusable carrier bags, without reuse, have a higher GWP than conventional HDPE carrier bags. Note: The cotton carrier bag is not shown because its GWP is more than ten times that of any other carrier bag.

However, the table below demonstrates how GWP is dramatically reduced when the reusable bags are used for their intended use – to be reused.

This information also poses another question, how many times should you re-use a reusable?

How many times do you need to use a reusable bag?

Simply put – as many times as you possibly can!

But if you want to delve into the numbers, WRAP estimated that a paper bag should be used at least 3 times, 4 times for an LDPE bag for life, 11 times for a non-woven bag, and 131 times for a cotton bag. The more times a bag is reused, the more eco-friendly it becomes, so it’s important to consider a bag’s durability to ensure it can not only reach the suggested number of uses but surpass them.


It’s also worth considering how times you can reuse a bag. Suppose you already use multiple cotton bags regularly and wouldn’t benefit from another. In that case, a paper bag can serve its initial purpose and be reused for as long as possible before being recycled in your household recycling.

What carrier bag is the most environmentally friendly?

Unfortunately, there is no one answer to this question, and it is highly dependent on the carrier’s -overall life cycle and its end-of-life journey once it has been used for its primary use (carrying shopping from the store to your home).

The data above can only tell us so much and is based on hypothetical outcomes. A carrier bag is only as environmentally friendly as we make it. Plastic bags may initially have the lowest environmental impacts, but the data doesn’t consider when the carrier bag escapes into the environment as litter.

How many plastic bags have you seen blowing down the road or read about polluting oceans and rivers?

Despite the ongoing single-use plastic crisis, there are some fantastic examples of innovation that best represent what an environmental carrier bag looks like, and some of them include plastic:

  • Bags made from 100% recycled material, such as old PET bottles (on-the-go drinks)
  • Bio-based plastic replaces virgin materials and helps companies divest from oil production without losing performance. These plastics are technically recyclable, unlike their biodegradable and compostable counterparts.
  • Global social enterprises that clean waste from land and rivers using collectors who are paid a fair wage in developing countries to provide recycled materials for manufacturing around the world.
  • A Danish company is also making recycled HDPE pellets from old fishing nets recovered from the North Sea to create new products, including carrier bags!
  • And a UK retailer uses offcut fabrics from their clothing manufacturers to make cotton totes, dramatically reducing production emissions.

With technological advances, it isn’t unreasonable to believe that the manufacturing impact of packaging and carrier bags can continue to decrease. Biffa has invested in producing HDPE and PP plastic pellets from recycled plastic waste. At the same time, paper recycling can improve its efficiency by segregating waste streams to provide high-quality recycled materials.

When deciding which carrier to buy or supply to your customers, consider how often it will be reused and be aware of how it can be reused, recycled, or disposed of responsibly to avoid any unwanted waste escaping as litter and causing havoc for wildlife.

If you’re a business looking to provide an eco-friendly carrier bag, contact your account manager or call us at 0800 307 307, and we’d be happy to help advise you.

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Jane S. King

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