ACR+ News

Report: Plastic bags - Policies and practices to reduce consumption

ACR+ have published review of waste plastic bag management policies 


The Association of Cities and Regions for Recycling & for sustainable Resource management (ACR+) have issued a report which considers the problems associated with the use of lightweight plastic bags.


Lightweight plastic bags offer many practical advantages, which of course is the reason for their success in supplanting alternatives. They are very light, weighing only a grammes, so even large number do not represent a significant flow of resources. A local authority with one million residents consuming 300 bags pa will be faced with a stream of 300 million bags, weighing some 2,000 tonnes (cf 1-2 Mt of municipal waste). 


A comprehensive Australian study of plastic bag flows suggests that most bags (60 per cent) are taken home. From there, one third quickly become waste and are landfilled, while more than half enjoy some form of reuse (before then being landfilled). Less than 3 per cent are recycled. Virtually all bags not taken home are landfilled, except for a small proportion (less than 1 per cent) which become an often visible stream of litter. There are opposing views on the environmental aspects of plastic bag consumption; on the one hand the view that bags are at worst a nuisance, and on the other that they represent a serious environmental and amenity hazard.


The available tools can focus on the provision of information, infrastructure, legal and economic instruments, and each has a particular application, depending on local circumstances and the level of administration at which the policy initiative takes place. Outside Europe draconian bans of plastic bags have been used, though this may well be a step too far in Europe where this level of market intrusion would appear to be unjustified. The power of economic instruments to change behaviour is undeniable.


Whether these can be agreed on a voluntary basis between the stakeholders (Government, the retail supply chain and local authorities), or whether mandatory instruments are called for (to encourage industry or to discourage free-riders) will vary from country to country. If a policy decision is taken to significantly reduce the flow of plastic shopping bags into landfill and litter, then the following actions are shown to be effective: ending the practice of free bags in supermarkets ensuring that alternative, reusable bags are available in supermarkets providing a collection systems for plastic bags, both through in-store facilities and also integrated within household dry recyclable schemes driving forward local communications and information campaigns to raise consumer awareness of the issue using any revenue from a levy or charge to fund litter clean-up or research


If the goal is to attack the bag as proxy for modern unsustainable lifestyles then sociological and cultural tools are relevant. If littering is the problem to be addressed, then producer responsibility schemes can help. If the concerns are based on the persistence of bags in landfills and in the countryside, then standards and codes to encourage biodegradable bags may be a worthwhile route. Auditing the flow of materials which become waste plastic bags is a very helpful first step.

For more information, you can freely download the full table of contents here:

Download the full report (members only): 

For non-members, the ACR+ report "Plastic bags - policies and practices to reduce consumption assessing the application of policies to lightweight single use polyethylene plastic bags" (1 MB) is available on demand at the ACR+ secretariat (please fill in the form)