In Depth

Are paper bags really better for the planet than plastic bags?

Morrisons has ditched plastic produce bags for paper - but the environmental benefits are far from clear-cut

Brown paper bag

Environmental groups have raised concerns about supermarket giant Morrisons much-lauded decision to bring back paper shopping bags.

Customers will now be offered traditional brown paper bags to hold their fresh fruit and vegetables, rather than the small plastic bags commonly used in UK supermarket produce aisles.

The retailer says that the switch to paper will reduce the number of plastic bags used at its 493 UK stores by 150 million.

Activists, politicians and ordinary shoppers applauded the move, part of a broader environmental initiative which also includes giving customers loyalty card points for using their own reusable containers at the supermarket’s meat and fish counters.

However, some campaigners have pointed to a 2011 Environment Agency report which found that paper bags “can have a higher carbon footprint than plastic bags and would need to be re-used at least three times to avoid having a higher impact”, The Times reports.

Sustainability expert Chris Goodall told The Guardian that re-introducing paper bags was a “retrograde step” which stemmed from a misunderstanding of the causes of plastic pollution.

“Most of the plastic in the sea comes from a small number of rivers, it does not come from me buying green beans in Morrisons,” he said.

Morrisons’ produce director, Drew Kirk, said that the company was aware that paper bags were not without their own “environmental impact”, but that customer concern had been the deciding factor in the change.

“We have listened to customers and they are telling us that the overuse of plastic is the most important environmental issue to deal with. That’s why we think that our lightweight fully recyclable paper bags are a good option,” he said. 

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