Since they first appeared in 1999, reusable bags for life have become an integral part of the UK supermarket experience. Taking a reusable bag to the shops has become second nature to many well-meaning consumers, but are the environmental benefits really what they’re cracked up to be?

This week, Morrisons announced that it would be replacing plastic bags for life with paper bags in eight of its stores. If the trial is successful, the supermarket plans to roll out the change in all 494 of its locations. The decision came after multiple studies found that the environmental benefits of reusable bags are negligible at best.

Although plastic bag use in the UK has dropped by 80% since 2014, it is still far too high according to environmentalists. Many feel that the 5p plastic bag charge introduced in 2015 is too low to bring about any real change. By replacing bags for life with paper bags, Morrisons believes that it can save 3,510 tonnes of plastic each year.

Bags for a week

Bags For Life seem like a great idea in principle, but they come with their own set of problems. They are made from a heavier duty plastic which takes more energy to produce and longer to decompose. This is fine if consumers really are using them “for life”, but research suggests otherwise. Speaking to the Huffington Post, a campaigner for the Environmental Investigation Agency explains the problem:

“We found that bags for life were quickly becoming ‘bags for a week,’ with the bags largely being treated as a single-use option with disastrous environmental consequences.”

The end of bags for life?

Although altering consumer behaviour is notoriously difficult, Morrisons CEO David Potts is confident that customers will embrace the change: “We believe customers are ready to stop using plastic carrier bags as they want to reduce the amount of plastic they have in their lives and keep it out of the environment.”

So is this the end of bags for life? The answer remains to be seen. While Waitrose has also announced plans to do away with plastic bags, Tesco and Sainsbury’s have opted to focus on making their current bags as sustainable as possible. Of course, no supermarket wants to be accused of lagging behind on environmental issues. It is, therefore, possible that Morrisons’ decision will set off a chain reaction, putting an end to plastic bags once and for all.