What next in the battle to reduce our addiction to plastic bags?
PUBLISHED: 06:00 12 January 2019 | UPDATED: 20:17 12 January 2019
The number of plastic bags sold by retailers has been slashed by billions since the 5p charge was introduced. But what do we need to do now to further reduce usage?
Of all the initiatives aimed at reducing our use of plastic, it is almost universally agreed that the introduction of a 5p charge for each plastic bag we request from retailers has been a success.
The 5p levy was introduced in England from October 2015 and required that all large retailers introduce the charge. Similar schemes run in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland while trade bodies representing tens of thousands of small retailers have also launched voluntarily approaches to the 5p charge.
It’s impossible to know to what extent people have eschewed the use of plastic bags as a direct result of the charge but the reduction in the number sold since the scheme came into force is certainly impressive.
Figures recently released by the government show that nearly two billion 5p plastic bags were sold in the last financial year (2017/18) – a stark reduction from 2014, when 7.6 billion carrier bags – the equivalent of 140 per person – were handed out solely by England’s seven largest supermarkets.
The stats from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) show the same seven retailers – Asda, Marks and Spencer, Sainsbury, Tesco, The Co-operative Group, Waitrose and Morrisons – sold 1.04 billion bags in 2017/18, nearly 60% of the 1.75 billion in England.
And charities have benefited too – retailers are expected to donate any proceeds from the 5p charge to good causes and 153 companies reported donations of £51.6 million last year. Of this, £20.5 million went to causes local to the businesses, £20.4 million to charities or voluntary organisations, while £2.9 million went to support environmental issues.
These numbers are borne out by evidence on the ground (or in the water).
The Marine Conservation Society (MCS) has been monitoring the impact of the 5p charge since it was introduced and regularly provides evidence for government consultations.
Oceanographer Dr Laura Foster, head of Clean Seas at the MSC said she the organisation has seen less plastic bag pollution in recent years.
She told the Press Association: “We are able to measure the impact of legislation and we’ve seen that since the introduction of the plastic bag charge in the UK, the amount we find on the beaches has gone down.
“That’s also been replicated by studies that have been done offshore – they’ve also seen a reduction in the amount of plastic bags they find.
“So we do know that legislation can directly impact on the amount we find on our beaches and in our oceans.”
In Suffolk, Jason Alexander, who has become well-known for his organised litter picking initiative called Rubbish Walks, says he is picking up fewer plastic bags than he did two to three years ago.
“I still find them but there are definitely less,” he said.
“With carrier bags you tend to find hot spots where they are in road verges and in trees. The last time I noticed a lot of them was around Tesco at Copdock.
“Where I do most of my collecting – on the beaches around Bawdsey and Felixstowe – carrier bags are now not even in the top ten of plastic items I find. There is a much greater problem now with things like wet wipes, balloons and sweet wrappers.”
But despite the reduction in use, billions of plastic bags are still sold in England each year – it’s clear there remains a long way to go to meet the standards of some countries leading the charge against carrier bags. In Europe, Denmark is the exemplar, and was the first European country to introduce a tax on plastic bags in 1993. This encouraged stores to charge for bags and push the use of reusable bags. Figures in 2014 showed Denmark had the lowest plastic bag use in Europe, at an impressive four bags per person, per year.
In an attempt to further reduce usage in the UK, the Government recently announced the fee for plastic bags is due to double to 10p and include smaller retailers from January 2020.
Introducing the consultation at the end of last year, Environment Secretary Mr Gove said: “The 5p single-use plastic carrier bag charge has been extremely successful in reducing the amount of plastic we use in our everyday lives. Between us, we have taken over 15 billion plastic bags out of circulation.
“But we want to do even more to protect our precious planet and today’s announcement will accelerate further behaviour change and build on the success of the existing charge.”
Part of the puzzle
Mr Alexander welcomes the initiative as solving “part of the puzzle”.
He added: “I think with plastic bags there’s an element of the Government choosing an easy win. They have seen the impact of the legislation last time round and are trying to get some more positive publicity from it.
“There are other things that are a real issue – for example, forcing wet wipe companies to look at alternative materials that contain less plastic and ensuring they don’t market them as flushable.”
He continued: “Part of the issue with plastic bags is also behavioural. I keep some bags for life in the car but often I find myself half way around the supermarket and I realise I’ve left them in my car, so I buy another bag for life rather than go back to to get them.
“We stick £1 in a supermarket trolley – maybe there is something we could do like that with bags?
“Ultimately, we have to keep plugging away with the same message in the hope more and more people get it - it’s one of those things where it is not just one group’s responsibility to sort it out. Big problems require action from individuals, businesses and government.”