Sainsbury’s Plastic Bags, Supermarket Sized Hypocrisy?

sainsbury bag
sainsbury bag

Today I went to the local supermarket and did the usual rounds of the aisles, loading the trolley with packets of food all wrapped in excessive amounts of cardboard and plastic. Today I picked up less than I usually do, but even so it was more than would fit into one or two bags.

On 1st October, Sainsbury’s took the decision to move the plastic bags off the end of the checkout, but to make them available if asked for. Not realising this, I stopped and asked. The conversation with the enthusiastic (over zealous?) 17yr old lad went along these lines:

“Could I please have some bags?”

“Yes, how many would you like?”

“I think six should do it, thanks.”

“Six? For that little lot? You don’t need six, you could get all of that into just four…”

“Do you think so? I don’t, which is why I have asked for six. If it turns out I can manage with less then I’ll leave some on the end of the checkout. Please pass me six bags.”

Now I wasn’t in a very good mood at that point in the day, and could possibly have been a little less ‘sharp’, but I really do object to being told I can do with less by someone who hasn’t done as much shopping as I have done, who chooses not to question the reason why he has been told to restrict the bags in the first place.

Apparently, it’s to save the planet, some environmental excuse like that. Which is fine – I’m the first to complain if I see something not being done, but I was told that it was the scourge of plastic bags which is most damaging to the environment, and made to feel as I was somehow to blame for the multiple thousands that are strewn along our highways and byways. I was the culprit, obviously.

I pointed out that plastic bags form less than 1% of all landfill, and that plastic packaging, such as that used for ready meals, forms a massive component. What really made me cross was that the supermarkets themselves promoted the use of plastic bags back in the late seventies to replace the humble cardboard box. Does anyone else remember hunting for a decent box under the checkouts and using those to pack the groceries in? When home, the box would be unpacked and crushed to go into the bin… or these days into the recycling. So what happened to boxes then? They were untidy components at the tills, polythene seemed far cheaper, more accessible, maybe. The humble cardboard box was cast out as inefficient and unwanted. Yet what is more environmentally suitable?

To my mind, the supermarkets drive the need for plastic packaging, by demanding foodstuffs that can be kept on the shelves longer, and are responsible for a huge proportion of the environmental damage we have got by importing foods from all over the planet (apparently we consumers demand that they do so) by using less than environmentally friendly processes. They introduce bags that do not degrade, and refuse to absorb far better alternatives, such as alternative plastics because they cost a bit more (and goodness knows, we can’t have a supermarket giant like Sainsbury reducing its profit margin by giving away better bags). They remove the cardboard boxes which were fine, actually, and then employ some spotty 17 year old child who is told to peddle the environmental angle to those of us who can remember what it was like to shop in small greengrocers that have long since been put out of business by supermarkets.

So the supermarket that employs the young man who doesn’t actually question any of what he has been told is the very same one that has been driving the need for the plastic packaging which forms the vast majority of household waste, and then turns on the guilt for the consumer by telling them how wasteful it is to use too many bags… the very bags which make up so very little of the content of land fill sites.

I just don’t get it.

Are we consumers now somehow responsible for the decisions that were taken at corporate level years ago? Decisions that were driven by efficiency demands, cost savings, commercial directions? Are we now going to just sit back and let Sainsbury and Tesco and every other large supermarket hoodwink us all into believing that we are all to blame for this? Maybe we should stop eating lychees and guavas, or tomatoes from Holland, and stick to the foods we can produce in our own country? Actually, I’m quite in favour of that.

Give me back the cardboard box and I’ll take it to a recycling plant. Give me a paper bag to pack the products into.  Start putting milk back in to glass bottles, which are made from a pretty abundant raw material, after all and can be recycled. Start spending some of your enormous profits on envinronmentally friendly, alternative plastics for your bags (if you are going to provide any) and start putting meals for one into packaging that isn’t going to take three barrels of oil to make. But whatever else you do, never ever tell your staff to advise me that I don’t need six bags, particularly when they have no idea about what my needs really are, and when you have spent so much of this planet’s resources lining your pockets with cash for far too long.

13 thoughts on “Sainsbury’s Plastic Bags, Supermarket Sized Hypocrisy?

  • 5 October, 2008 at 5:57 pm

    All you need to do is put a bit more into each bag and then you could use 4 instead of 6. Splitting those big packs of stubbies would probably help.

  • 5 October, 2008 at 6:05 pm

    Huzzah! Bring back the cardboard boxes, re-introduce paper bags, put the milk into glass bottles and stop blaming the shopper. I usually bring my re-usable bags with me, but I’ve noticed that this definitely slows down the checkout queue because the current system is not designed for using your own bags. Whatever happens, it will end up costing money and inevitably the customer will pay the supermarkets a bit more, but perhaps we will benefit from improvements in waste management.

  • 5 October, 2008 at 7:42 pm

    Stubbies, Edna? I think not! A bottle of wine, perhaps, but beer is not part of the usual round of groceries for me.

    The point is that we should not be told how many bags to use on the basis of erroneous half truths and misinformation. We should not have the supermarkets now telling us, the shopper, to manage the process that they have built at a tidy profit. We should not let supermarkets shout about how well they are doing to reduce polythene bags when in fact they carry the responsibility for introducing them to begin with. And finally, we should not shoulder this responsibility when it is so easy for supermarkets to invest in bags that are significantly better for the environment but cost a bit more. The profits these supermarket chains are reaping in from us all is obscene, and we pay a premium for their mismanagement of the situation thus far.

    And to top it all, the child on the checkout had not got the wherewithal to question any of this, and simply spouted the company line. He overstepped the mark by telling me what my real needs were without recourse to reason or logic.

  • 5 October, 2008 at 7:46 pm

    Thanks Shirley – a voice of reason in the murkiness! The ritual for me as a child going to the supermarket with my mum was to find a cardboard box by walking up and down the aisles and then packing the items in it carefully, trying to avoid the bottom of the box falling out! Back home it would get unpacked and then torn to shreds in order to get it into the dustbin. These days we would simply put it up for recycling, or fold it flat and re-use it the following week.

    I think the HSE have put the kibosh on glass bottles… apparently they are too dangerous for us dimwits to use regularly, and goodness knows how unhygienic they are – generations of families suffered tremendously from disease and pestilence because of the humble milk bottle… 😉


  • 25 October, 2008 at 2:26 am

    I agree it is annoying being told by someone older what they think is best for you – but putting that asside the real issue is the environment.
    YES – they are using way too much packaging and it is a painful experience shopping trying to make the best decisions, fat content,cholesterol content and ENVIRONMENTALLY FRIENDLY…it could drive one to stop eating.
    We can NOT control what is put on the shelves
    We CAN control what we buy
    We can NOT control how much packaging companies use or the amount of bags other people use.
    WE CAN control what WE USE…
    I think that it is time to stop passing the blame and worry about what we…only we are doing and how we can function in life boing as friendly to the environment as possible.
    Plastic does take up a lot less room in landfill – but it also takes between about 12-1000 years to break down. Even then it still remains in the environment – making its way into the ocean, check this link out…
    I just the other day visited the local rubbish disposal site for a university assignment (mature age student – not 17 years old) and was privledged to be taken to the actual landfill site. It is horrific to see the mass of plastic bags being picked apart by birds to get the rubbish inside…pieces of plastic flying away…the masses on reclyclable materials in ordinary waste…cardboard…plastic… I was sickened and dismayed…I thought everyone was recycling.
    Then it occured to me…i cant change them…
    But -I can change my ways…I can teach my children and my family and friends…we have to try dont we????

  • 25 October, 2008 at 8:30 pm

    That’s a great link, and I agree, we each have an obligation to try.

    It was a younger person on the checkout, not an older one, which is why I got so incensed. He didn’t have enough life experience to justify his comments, and was simply repeating a line he had little understanding of.

    Yes, plastic bags are horrible, and the point I was making wasn’t that I think they should stay. I would happily go back to better materials, such as cardboard boxes which do degrade quickly if only the supermarkets would oblige and put them back at the end of the aisles. I have a friend who used to be a manager in Tesco who told me one of the key reasons for removing them was the mess they caused. Oh, and they were a fire hazard! A fire hazard!! What a nonsense. A trip hazard I could agree with, and all that takes is for everyone to be a little more alert, and for the supermarket to be vigilant about how they are stored.

    The point was that it was supermarkets who drove up the use of plastic bags in the first place, and they made money in the process. Now they are being good to the environment (which they took so much of a hand in destroying) and telling us that we now have to be careful. It’s the hypocrisy of it that annoys me. That, and the fact that the humble polythene bag is not the main offender – the plastic packaging materials are far, far worse.

    When you consider that there are already polythene bags available which are incredibly biodegradable, I would think it better for the supermarkets to use those. However, they cost a bit more per bag, which would affect the overall profit the company makes and so they don’t use them. After all, a loss in profits would upset the shareholders, wouldn’t t? And we can’t have them being upset by an environmentally friendly policy, can we?

    I am being sarcastic, of course, and it should be obvious that the shareholders are ordinary people like you and I who should accept a slightly lower dividend payment in the sure knowledge that they are helping to vastly improve the situation caused by polythene bags.

    And they should bring back cardboard boxes at the checkouts.

  • 24 March, 2009 at 1:36 pm

    I agree completely! I think that the hypocrisy makes the whole issue so much the worse. And I don’t see the point in using plastic; paper and cardboard are easy to use, re-use and recycle and they are incredibly biodegradeable, naturally. They should definately be used instead, and supermarkets should stop blaming us for their own greed and stupidity!

  • 27 April, 2009 at 10:49 am

    Ive been stirring it a bit at our local Tesco by asking for a cardboard box each time I visit. No joy so far. As Ive pointed,out it was the supermarkets that started the plastic bag problem, not us shoppers.

    The main reason for them all introducing plastic bags was free publicity, with the supermarket name splashed over the bag, while I walked down the road on my way home. Maybe I have a claim for all these years of displaying their name? I will take legal advice.!!
    Bring back the cardboard boxes.

  • 30 October, 2009 at 1:02 pm

    So your theory is, since they introduced the plastic bag, they should be the only ones trying to remove it? Why don’t you just not use any plastic bags instead of saying “you started it, so you deal with it”?

    Maybe the checkout kids are told to tell everyone about the plastic bag problem, not just you, the almighty cardboard box user, so that they can at least make some tokenistic effort to try and curb demand for them, even if it is through the use of guilt.

    I’ve always thought they should start charging for the bags like in Europe. It’s not just the supermarket to blame, it’s the family of five going in and using 20 plastic bags to transport the shopping to the car.

    People seem to want to stop climate change, but they’re expecting someone else to do it for them. Maybe next time just buy less things?

  • 30 October, 2009 at 11:15 pm

    Ellie, Jim – keep up the very good work. We all need to reduce the amount of plastic we use and asking for boxes is a brilliant idea! I don’t want a plastic bag, plastic cartons, plastic drinks bottles, plastic anything unless I absolutely have to have it. As has been pointed out, we rarely get to influence any of this, but by objecting and making a fuss I think we can make a bit of an impact!

  • 30 October, 2009 at 11:15 pm

    No Tibor – you’ve missed the point!

    My theory is far worse than to get the supermarket to do it all. My theory is that the supermarket have shaped consumer habits for the last thirty years, introduced the plastic bag as part of that, moved us all into a dependency culture and then require US to now pay more money for reducing the problem THEY started.

    My theory is that we SHOULD work to reduce the amount of ALL plastics in the environment, of which plastic bags are a small proportion. Tiny, in fact.

    My theory is that we were all OK using cardboard boxes, paper bags and glass bottles – all highly recyclable… I didn’t want a plastic bag in the first place.

    I also don’t want some child, who has yet to work out their own mind, telling me I can easily get by with less bags when they have no clue about what I am doing. They may well be told by the manager to say those things, and that kind of proves my point. They are not thinking about what they are doing, merely following the line they have been told to follow. They do not remember a time when cardboard boxes were available at the end of the checkouts. They can’t see past the hype and waffle that fills our lives and distracts us from what has really been happening. They have no idea what I am trying to say.

    The issue *isn’t* that I want someone else to deal with the problem of plastics, but that I want the supermarkets to stop being so hypocritical, and telling ME that it is MY fault after they gave me no choice and forced these items into the environment.

    I also have a problem with the nonsense that plastic bags are the worst environmental problem we’ve got. Since they make up such a tiny, tiny proportion of all non biodegradable waste, why are they the focus? Surely plastic containers, wrappings, bottles and other plastic goods, which are far, far worse, need to be addressed too? Simply reducing the plastic bag count will have such a minimal impact overall that it is a stupidity of gross proportions to focus on it.

    Unfortunately for us as a planet, it would be too much of an inconvenience for supermarkets to encourage anything other than plastic food containers – which are easy to store and display, and keep the food edible for longer, thus increasing the opportunity to *sell* it – but this is PRECISELY what we need them to do – ditch the non-degradable plastic containers, use a more environmentally friendly variety and DONT pass on the cost to us. For the sake of a few broken bottles and the need to store less and refresh more often… I don’t see why they don’t.


  • 20 February, 2010 at 8:24 pm

    What happened to the biodegradable plastic carrier bags that were commonplace in the late 1980’s?

  • 18 September, 2010 at 8:13 am

    Plastic bags are not an eniviron*mental* problem.

    If I dont get bags from them, I need to buy bags to put my rubbish in. So its exactly the same, except they save money on the bags and sell me bin bags.

    If they really cared about plastic bags and the environment, they would simply bring in paper bags like are popular in America. Problem solved, but of course it never was a problem.

    I havent shopped in M&S since they started charging for bags, I would do the same with any other big supermarket.

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