Britain’s shores are about to get a whole lot cleaner, and it’s all thanks to a very small change. Single-use plastic bag consumption has plummeted by more than 85% following the introduction of the 5p/bag charge last October, early figures suggest.
Single-use plastic bags are handy if you’re a customer, but they’re an environmental nightmare for the planet. In an attempt to reduce the number of such bags that shops provide their customers with, England introduced a modest 5p charge per bag last October. It was the last part of the UK to adopt the tax on plastic bags, after it was successfully implemented in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The law required retailers with 250 or more full time-employees to charge a minimum of 5p for each bag they provide for shoppers in stores or for deliveries. Smaller shops and paper bags aren’t included in the tax. Some other goods, such as raw meat, raw fish, prescription medicine, seeds, flowers and live fish, are also exempt from the bag tax.
This little tax has had an enormous effect: the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) reported that the number of plastic bags handed out by supermarkets dropped from the 7bn in the year before the tax to only 500m in the six months after it. The charge also raised enough cash for retailers to donate more than £29m towards causes including charities and community groups, Defra added.
But this tax isn’t about raising money. It’s purpose was to reduce litter and protect wildlife. In 2014, the number of carrier bags given out by the seven major supermarket chains in England rose by 200m over last year to peak at 7.6bn — equivalent to 140 per person and totaling an impressive 61,000 tonnes of plastic. All this plastic has to go somewhere, such as recycling centers or landfills, but some of it ends up in the ocean.
Around 8m tonnes of plastic somehow make their way into the world’s oceans each year, and experts estimate that around 31 species of marine mammals and more than 100 species of sea birds end up ingesting plastic. So taking plastic bags out of circulation is good news for everyone.
“Taking 6bn plastic bags out of circulation is fantastic news for all of us,. It will mean our precious marine life is safer, our communities are cleaner and future generations won’t be saddled with mountains of plastic taking hundreds of years to breakdown in landfill sites,” said UK’s environment minister, Therese Coffey.
“It shows small actions can make the biggest difference, but we must not be complacent, as there is always more we can all do to reduce waste and recycle what we use.”
The Marine Conservation Society reported after its annual beach cleanup in 2015 that the amount of rubbish dumped on UK beaches rose by a third compared with the previous year. The number of plastic drinks bottles found were up 43% on 2014 levels. Hopefully, the bag tax can help lower that number by next year.
“There is always more that we can do,” said Dr Sue Kinsey, a technical specialist for waste at the Marine Conservation Society. “We encourage everyone to join in on our Great British Beach Clean this September to help keep our coastlines clean.”
“The plummeting plastic bag use demonstrates the huge benefits just a small change in our everyday habits can make. It means less damaging plastic finding its inevitable way into our waterways and countryside. This is a massive boon for nature and wildlife,” said Andrew Pendleton, of Friends of the Earth.
“With attention now turning to the millions of non-recyclable coffee cups that go to landfill and to oversized boxes and excess packaging as a by-product of online shopping, the government and forward-thinking businesses have a golden chance to cut waste and reduce resource use in a sensible way that consumers welcome.”
The money the tax is raising is also being put to good use. Tesco expects its Bags of Help scheme to provide more than £20m in the first year to local environmental projects.
Matt Davies, chief executive of the UK’s largest retailer Tesco said: “The government’s bag charge has helped our customers [in England] reduce the number of bags they use by 30m each week, which is great news for the environment.”
The government forecast that the charge would reduce the use of single-use carrier bags by up to 80% in supermarkets and 50% on the high street. It is also expected to save £60m in litter cleanup costs.