Sales of single-use plastic bags at the seven biggest retailers in England have plummeted by 90 per cent since the introduction of a 5p charge in 2015, Government figures show. The decline was hailed by the newly installed Environment Secretary, Theresa Villiers, as “a powerful demonstration that we are collectively calling time on being a throwaway society”. Campaigners against plastic also welcomed the impact of the charge, credited with a dramatic change in consumer behaviour.
It follows huge falls in plastic bag use in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland which all introduced the levy sooner.
Britain beating plastic bags
Julian Kirby of Friends of the Earth said: “What an amazing difference good legislation makes. Five pence really is a small price to pay to see this massive reduction in plastic bags that used to blight the countryside and clog up waterways, with horrific resultant damage to marine life.”
Greenpeace applauded the levy’s “huge success” but pointed out that single-use plastic bags remain available at no cost from smaller retailers.
“It’s been nearly a year since the Government pledged to extend the bag charge to all retailers,” said Fiona Nicholls, Greenpeace ocean plastics campaigner.
“Customers are clearly happy to bring their own bag, so we urge the new Environment Secretary to get on with it and finish the job.”
Half a billion fewer bags
Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda, Morrisons, Co-op, Waitrose and Marks and Spencer sold 549 million single use plastic carrier bags in England in the year 2018/2019, down from one billion over the previous 12 months, a reduction of 490m, the Department for Food Environment and Rural Affairs announced.
These chains account for around 50 per cent of the total bags reported by all retailers.
The average person in England now buys 10 bags per year from the main supermarkets, compared with 140 bags in 2014, before the charge was introduced, according to the data.
Wales was the first UK country to charge for bags, in October 2011. Between 2011 and 2014 the number of single-use carrier bags handed out in shops declined by 71 per cent.
Scotland introduced the 5p charge in October 2014 and, by 2015 – the last year for which data is available – there had been an 80 per cent reduction in bags taken home.
The levy came into effect in Northern Ireland in April 2013. By last September the number of plastic bags in circulation was down by a billioncompared to 2012.
Changing attitudes — recycling goes mainstream
Public attitudes toward plastic have transformed since the introduction of the bag levy. Sir David Attenborough (inset) and his series Blue Planet II are widely credited with helping to shift public attitudes and behaviours.
The Government has announced several initiatives intended to curb plastic waste, with the nation’s huge use of plastic bottles one of the prime targets. It is consulting on introducing a deposit return scheme for drinks bottles and cans, rewarding participants with money or vouchers, to boost recycling.
Next year it will implement a ban on supplying plastic straws, drinks stirrers and plastic-stemmed cotton buds in England.
It also plans to introduce a tax in April 2022 on plastic packaging that does not meet a minimum threshold of at least 30 per cent recycled content.