By Daniel Hunter

A small increase in the number of carrier bags being used by supermarket shoppers across the UK reflects changing spending habits, the British Retail Consortium (BRC) says.

The latest annual statistics, compiled by Government waste body WRAP, show consumers' bag use in 2011 was 5.4 per cent higher than the previous year. However bag use is still 32 per cent lower compared with the baseline year of 2006.

The on-going squeeze on people's disposable incomes means families are increasingly doing several smaller grocery shops during the week rather than one big trip, plus there is a switch away from going by car in favour of public transport. For both of these reasons consumers are less likely to have reusable bags with them and are therefore making slightly greater use of the bags made available by some retailers.

The BRC is stressing that bags are not the great environmental issue some believe they are but if the UK governments are set on reducing their use further, they will have to go beyond voluntary schemes. A charge on carrier bags, introduced in Wales, has led to significant further reductions in the total number of bags being used there.

"Let's not forget, the number of carrier bags used in 2011 is still a third lower than in 2006. The majority of shoppers do their best to reuse bags and take as few new bags as possible. However, shopping trends are changing and it's clear many customers appreciate the bags they're offered," British Retail Consortium Head of Environment, Bob Gordon, said.

"Plastic bags account for a fraction of one per cent of household waste and the amount of new plastic being used in today's bags is half what it was in 2006. They have a symbolic status but their impact on the environment is much smaller than other things which retailers are turning their firepower on. For example, retailers are leading members of a new forum which will reduce the carbon footprint of thousands of everyday products, between them responsible for around 30 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

"It's no surprise the use of a bag charge in Wales has reduced the number of bags taken by consumers there. If other governments see reducing the use of carrier bags as a priority, they will have to take a lead and go beyond voluntary measures. Any legislation should be as similar as possible to what's in place in Wales and we are already working with other governments as they develop their plans."

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