The Price of Plastic Bags
Single-use plastic bags are a world-wide waste issue, as a single bag can take up to 500 years or more to degrade1.
Further to the huge waste issue caused by discarded plastic bags there is a cost to wildlife that should be considered as small animals such as birds and fish can either end up getting trapped or digesting the plastic which results in starvation2.
Table 1, below, shows that the number of plastic bags has increased for a fifth year running in the UK3. In addition to the bags given out each year, research carried out in 2013 by the Department of Environment, Food and Rural affairs (DEFRA) indicates that the average household has up to 40 plastic bags stashed away3.
Number of bags (millions)
% change since 2010
In order to combat this problem, charging for carrier bags has been a proposed solution. Whilst only just coming into place in the UK this week, charging for carrier bags has been introduced to other parts of the UK such as Wales (in October 2011), Northern Ireland (in April 2013), and Scotland (in October 2014). Once these charges were introduced in other UK countries, the number of bags being used in supermarkets reduced significantly3. For example, Table 1 shows the percentage of change since 2010, Wales’ plastic bag use reduced by 78.2%. The table shows that Wales did experience a 5.2% increase in plastic bag use last year, however its use of carrier bags overall is still significantly lower compared to other parts of the UK.
With the success of the scheme in other parts of the UK, the Government has decided to introduce the 5p charge for carrier bags as of 5th October 2015. Under the new legislation, large retailers (with over 250 full time employees) will have to charge a minimum of 5p for each single-use plastic bag given to customers3. This coincides with new European Union (EU) law to reduce plastic bag use, by encouraging EU member states to implement legislation to meet the EU reduction targets5. The EU target is to half plastic bag use by 2019 with an initial threshold of 90 bags per person per year by 2019, followed by 40 bags in 20256.
Figure 1 shows the number of plastic bags being used in different EU member states; the UK is just under the EU average. It highlights that in the UK we heavily rely on single-use plastic bags compared to Denmark or Finland, whose shoppers are given multi-use bags. Furthermore, countries such as Poland, Hungary and Slovakia use more than double the amount of single use plastic bags than the UK, demonstrating that plastic bag use within the EU is not just a UK issue.
Figure 1: Single and multiple use plastic bags used per person in EU Member States in 20107
The introduction of the 5p plastic bag charge will hopefully stop shoppers from using new bags and encourage them to reuse old ones, following suit with the success of this process in other UK countries. Not only will this be a great win for waste reduction and protection of wildlife but it will also assist the UK in meeting EU’s reduction targets.