Back in 2015, the UK government introduced a tax which required all retailers to charge 5p for single use plastic bags. The initiative was hailed as a huge success with some supermarkets claiming they have cut their distribution by up to 86%. According to figures from the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), nearly 2 billion 5p plastic bags were sold in the last financial year, compared to 7.6 billion in 2014. Because of this, the price of single use plastic bags is soon set to double to 10p across the UK amid the government’s latest effort to reduce . waste.
However, dig a little further into the numbers and you’ll see that the reduced quantity of plastic waste is not quite as shiny as it seems.
More than one million heavy duty ‘bag for life’ alternatives, which contain much more plastic than their single use counterparts, are sold in major UK supermarkets each year.
It’s clear that no matter how good intentions might be, the 10p charge is not steep enough to prevent people forgetting to bring back their bags. Iceland’s joint Managing Director Richard Walker told TheTimes the transition had actually increased the amount of plastic used:
“I’m not proud of this because beyond the headline of the fact I have just removed a quarter of a billion single use carrier bags from circulation, these bags for life are a thicker, higher grade of plastic,” he said. “We are selling less of them but it’s not yet less enough that it’s compensated in terms of the extra weight that they are for the fewer amount of bags that we are selling.’
In addition to the large format retailers, some 3.6 billion bags are understood to have been handed out by an estimated 253,000 small and medium sized retailers who are exempt from the initiative.
According to the government, it “expects” retailers to donate proceeds from plastic bag sales to good causes, but it’s not compulsory. Before donating, retailers are allowed to deduct “reasonable costs” to accommodate the plastic bag charge – such as introducing a new till system or retraining staff. It’s then up to the individual retailer to decide which causes to support.
Environmental Campaigners say they want to see a significant cost increase to the price of plastic bags, to as much as £1 a pop, or for plastic bags to be banned altogether.