Supermarkets started charging shoppers 5 pence for each plastic carrier bag they provide. New statute took full effect starting October the 5th 2015 in England.
Note: This article contains updated information about new charges for plastic bags being extended to 10 pence and takes full effect from the 21st of May 2021.
So, in real terms, what is the cost to a nation of wasteful consumers? What will be the full impact of this controversial new law?
Data from WRAP UK shows supermarket customers used a staggering 8.5 billion thin-gauge (single-use) shopping bags in 2014.
That equates to a colossal number of carrier bags for every adult. In fact, the figure is around 200 plastic bags per person each year.
To help lower these statistics, shoppers in England will have to pay five pence for each carrier bag. As such, they will be falling in line with the rest of the United Kingdom.
It is the country's bureaucratic attempt to fix an ever-looming environmental disaster. So how will high street shoppers respond to a package of messy governance and how can they embrace a flagrant new law with such confusing exemptions?
Be honest - you probably have your own synthetic bag mountain stashed away at home right? Most likely inside a cupboard or the kitchen drawer.
You might call it your own sequestered landfill site. But no matter how many garbage bags you use and throw away, they keep on coming back - almost like magic.
So, here's the deal:
England - or shall we say the British Government - introduced their solution. If you shop at a retailer employing 250 full-time members of staff nationwide, you will get charged 5 pence for every single-use carrier bag.
Excess charges now apply at the majority of outlets and supermarkets. It also includes some fashion chains and most DIY stores.
There are few exemptions to the new rules. One exclusion which immediately comes to mind is for shops selling aquatic creatures.
How can you be supportive of the government's drive to rid the environment of plastic garbage? You can make an effort to use your own reusable bags.
Even so, a 5 pence levy for a family shopping trip is unlikely to kill the plastic carrier bag disease - or will it?
You do not need to look far to understand why we need the charge. You can see the reasons blowing across windswept playgrounds.
The bags gather on railway tracks and lay crumpled up in gutters.
Plastic bags get caught up in the wheels of bicycles or snagged in the branches of trees. The cheap, tatty carrier, plain or printed, in white or bright colours, has become the emblem of consumerism gone wrong.
It is the embodiment of wastefulness, glaringly out of place with its surroundings. They are easy to spot and you also have the emotional impact. It is a fact that turtles, whales, and dolphins mistake them for their natural food source - jellyfish.
As if that's not enough:
Up to 90% of seabirds have plastic in their guts, study finds. It explains why plastic carriers are so often singled out as the worst environmental villains.
The Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) suggest 8.5 billion thin-gauge plastic bags - the free ones - got used last year by customers of supermarkets around the country.
That amounts to more than 23 million a day. Most of these are not biodegradable. But, over centuries they will break down into smaller and smaller pieces of plastic - we hope.
Since 2009, when usage figures troughed, the number of single-use carriers handed out has begun a steady upward creep.
Perhaps the crisis of conscience has eased and people have got used to the idea of their wastefulness again. The charge is clearly needed. But will it work? And does it go far enough?
In case you were wondering:
The precedents suggest the levy is a stroke of genius. Why? After a similar 5p charge got introduced in Wales in October 2011, the same happened in Northern Ireland in April 2013 and in Scotland October 2014.
And the outcome? All three reported significant reductions in the number of bags taken from retail stores and shops.
Wales and Northern Ireland have seen a 78% and an 81% decline in plastic bag use respectively. There has been a small blip in Wales, but generally the levy seems to be working. More than that, it is also popular with most consumers.
Tesco ends the sale of their 5p cheap carrier bags across their UK stores from September 2017. Instead, Tesco will offer 'bags for life' costing shoppers 10 pence.
The supermarket giant sells around 700 million single-use carrier bags a year. That is the highest amount among major supermarkets. Tesco announced the decision following a trial which led to a cut of 25% in plastic carrier bag sales.
Since the introduction of the 5 pence charge, plastic bag sales are down 86% in the 'big seven' supermarkets. The figures show that sales of 5p bags continued falling throughout 2017/18 in England.
The UK Government launched a call for evidence to address single-use plastic waste. They also announced their intention to:
Note: Asda, Marks and Spencer, Morrisons, Sainsbury, The Co-operative Group, Tesco, and Waitrose are the seven biggest retailers in the United Kingdom.
The single-use carrier bag charge resulted in a 95% cut in plastic bag sales in the major supermarkets. Now, the government will increase it from 5p to 10 pence from the 21st of May 2021 (and extend it to all businesses).
So, the average person buys four single-use carrier bags a year from the main supermarkets in England. That is a significant improvement - compared to well over one hundred in previous years.
Extending the plastic bag charge to all retailers aims to decrease the use of single-use carrier bags by 75% at small and medium-sized businesses.
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