Businesses Make Profits With Plastic Bags

There is a hole in the Rewe supermarket checkout. Not where the sweet temptations for small shopping companions line up at eye level, and also not where the nicotine-containing temptations for taller shoppers wait behind bars to be released. No, the hole gapes one floor below, so deep that many shouldn't even notice it - unless they have forgotten their carrier bag on the kitchen table.

As the first large grocery retailer in Germany, Rewe completely banned single-use plastic bags from its range last year. More retailers soon followed suit, but most of them still want their customers to decide how to transport their purchases home. Since June 1, 2016, customers have often been paying a few cents at the checkout. It provides for the "voluntary commitment" that the German Trade Association (HDE) had previously agreed on with the Federal Environment Ministry - instead of a statutory fee. At the start of the initiative, 240 companies committed themselves to only giving out plastic bags for money. In the meantime, 100 more dealers have joined.

Around 350 companies, that may not sound like much at first. In fact, the four large German grocery retailers Edeka, Rewe, Lidl and Aldi, each with several thousand supermarkets or discounters, are behind it. The result of the campaign: The consumption of single-use plastic bags fell dramatically. According to the HDE, it has decreased from 5.6 billion to 3.6 billion bags within one year. At Karstadt, for example, it fell by as much as 70 percent, according to the company.

However, the term "voluntary commitment" already includes: everything can, nothing has to. If you want to continue to give out disposable bags free of charge, you can do so. If you only want to charge five cents instead of the ten to twenty cents that are considered effective, you also have every freedom with the amount. The HDE also has no guidelines for the use of the money raised in this way.

This money amounts to a considerable amount: an estimated 70 percent of the 3.6 billion plastic carrier bags issued in Germany are covered by the voluntary commitment and are only issued for a cent amount. Most retailers charge ten to twenty cents per bag. Assuming that around 2.5 billion plastic bags are given out annually in Germany for an average of 15 cents, this results in annual sales of around 375 million euros.

The profit from the plastic bags rarely helps the environment

But who gets this money? The manufacturers of the bags? The retailers? Or does it benefit projects that want to reduce pollution of the environment and especially of the world's oceans?

The sobering answer for the environmentally conscious consumer: First of all, a large part of the money stays with the companies themselves. A plastic bag costs 0.5 to 0.8 cents to buy. If one of them goes over the counter, the companies make a profit first. Hardly any retailer wants to reveal exactly how much. Many companies also keep a secret about the specific purpose of the money. In doing so, they leave consumers alone. Many of them wrongly assume that the additional income from the plastic bag levy will automatically flow into the protection of the oceans or at least into environmental projects. But this is not always the case.