I always tell my friends that the difference between almost free and free is huge. It sounds a bit strange, but while $7.95 is not that different from $8, $0 is vastly different from $0.05.

Plastic beach litter, Hengistbury Head. Image credits: Rob Noble

In 2015, we wrote about Scotland‘s meager 5p tax for plastic bags – that’s about $0.06. However, that tiny tax worked wonders. In just one year, the number of plastic bags handed out in stores was slashed by 80% – that’s 650 million fewer bags in Scotland alone! This translates into a net saving of more than 4,000 tonnes of plastic and a reduction of 2,500 tonnes of CO2 annually. England followed suit, adding the same tax one year later for retailers with over 250 full-time employees. Now the entire United Kingdom (Wales and Northern Ireland included) has the 5p tax for plastic bags.

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Back then, we were expecting the measure to do wonders, and it did. The Marine Conservation Society reported the lowest number of plastic bags found on UK shores in the past 10 years. According to their report, in 2015, there were on average 11 plastic bags per 100 metres of coastline cleaned in 2015. In 2016, there were just 7, an almost 40% reduction. Of course, it takes some time before the full effects of plastic reduction can be seen in nature.

The charity’s beach watch manager, Lauren Eyles, said:

“In the last decade, our Great British Beach Clean volunteers have found an average of 10 single use carrier bags for every 100 metres of coastline cleaned. It vindicates the charge, which we predicted would be good news for the marine environment. Thanks to our thousands of fantastic volunteers who collect beach litter data, we can now see the impact these charges have had.”

The numbers are expected to drop even more. In Wales, where the tax has been implemented for five years, there were just under four bags for every 100 metres cleaned. Overall, total levels of rubbish dropped by 4% on UK beaches, mostly due to the 5p tax. According to the BBC, other plastic objects found on beaches include:

  • Plastic caps and lids (204 found per 100m). Seabirds can mistake floating plastic for food.
  • Cotton buds (23 per 100m). These plastic sticks end up in the sewage instead of being recycled.
  • Wet wipes (14 per 100m). They shouldn’t be thrown in the sink or in the toilet.

Aside from the direct pollution, turtles and other wildlife often mistake plastic bags for jellyfish or other food and consume them. Often times, these items block their digestive systems, basically causing starvation. While we certainly benefit from plastic (and in some cases, depend on it) we’re drastically overusing it. Our world is full of single-use plastic, and if we want to create a sustainable future, cutting plastic will certainly be a key part of that.