Britain ditches the old bag

DateDec 8, 2016
AuthorEleanor Hatton

Because of the accessibility and convenience of plastic bags they have always been heavily used over the past few years. In 2014 major supermarkets across England gave their customers over 7.6 billion single-use plastic bags. That’s around 140 bags per person, amounting to a total of around 61,000 tonnes. These figures showed that the number of single-use plastic bags given by supermarkets increased for the fifth year running in 2014.1

plastic bag

This increase in plastic bags poses a threat to our environment. Not only do they consist of using fossil fuels, large amounts of water and energy to create which results in millions of tons of CO2 every year, but also the majority of plastic bags remain in landfills or oceans for thousands of years as they are not biodegradable.2 Due to plastic being lightweight they can be easily picked up and carried by the wind resulting in litter in towns, parks and across the countryside which is visually unpleasant and can cause further damage to our wildlife.1 Experts estimate that every year around 8m tonnes of plastic enters the world’s ocean posing a serious threat to our marine and natural environment. It is estimated that plastic is eaten by over 100 species of sea birds and 31 species of marine mammals.3

Not only can plastic bags cause damage to our ecosystems they can also increase the risk of flooding. Because they don’t completely break down they can clog storm drains and cause damage to the drainage system which can eventually result in severe surface water flooding.2

In order to try to combat the numerous detrimental effects of plastic bags it was agreed that large businesses need to charge for single-use plastic carrier bags. The aim of the scheme is to encourage people to re-use bags and thus reduce the use of single-use plastic carrier bags, and in turn reduce the litter associated with them.1 From 5 October 2015, large shops in England were required to charge 5p for all single-use plastic carrier bags. This is not dependent on the size of the branch but rather applies to retailers who have 250 or more employees. Half a year on and the number of single-use plastic bags used by shoppers at the 7 main retailers (Sainsbury's, Tesco, Asda, Marks and Spencer’s, The Co-operative group, Waitrose and WM Morrison) has dropped by nearly 80%4.

Wales introduced a similar 5p charge in 2011, followed by Northern Ireland in 2013 and Scotland in 2014. The scheme in Wales saw reductions in plastic bag use of 79% in its first 3 years and 71% in Northern Ireland and 80% in Scotland in the first year after the fee was introduced.5 The data for the six months from October 2015 to April 2016 shows a huge fall in the number of single-use plastic bags issued by the 7 main retailers from 7.6 billion in 2014 to just 0.6 billion single-use carrier bags.6 In addition to this, the 5p levy has encouraged retailers to donate more than £29.2 million to good causes such the environment, education, health, as well as charities and voluntary/community organisations.6

Other benefits we are expected to see over the next 10 years include £730 million raised for good causes and charities, £60 million saved in the cost of litter clean-up, £13 million carbon savings and an anticipated overall benefit of over £780 million to the UK economy.1

This massive drop in the number single-use carrier bags is evidence of how successful such a small charge can make and what an impact small changes in our everyday lives can have. Our next challenge may be to extend the charge to smaller businesses and reducing the number of non-recyclable coffee cups, plastic drinks bottles and excessive packaging to online shopping.




  1. Carrier bags: why there's a charge. Available at:
  2. Plastic Shopping Bags & Environmental Impact, Available at:
  3. Billions fewer plastic bags on the streets. Available at:
  4. Single-use plastic carrier bags charge: data in England for 2015 to 2016. Available at:
  5. Plastic bag use plummets in England since 5p charge. Available at:
  6. England's plastic bag usage drops 85% since 5p charge introduced. Available at: