Carrier bag charge sees usage plummet by 6.5 billion

The number of plastic shopping bags handed out by retailers in England has dropped from seven billion to just over half a billion within six months, following the introduction of the 5p carrier bag charge last October.

New figures released over the weekend by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) have been hailed as a “Liberal Democrat success story” by the Party’s leader Tim Farron, and praised by green groups as a “massive boon for nature and wildlife”.

More than seven billion plastic bags were handed out by England’s seven major retailers in 2014, but this figure dropped to just over half a billion in the first six months after the 5p charge was introduced in October last year, Defra said.

Commenting on the results, Lib Dem leader Farron – who backed the introduction of the charge and now wants to remove all exemptions for single-use bags – said: “We always said the test of this policy would be by the amounts of bags that are cut frome public consumption and the funds raised for charities – on both these tests this policy has passed.

“It was down to Liberal Democrats in Government that this policy happened – we announced it at our 2013 conference and we are now seeing what a huge impact it has had. The facts are simple; single use bags blight our towns and countryside, they trap and suffocate wildlife, and plastic bags take hundreds of years to degrade. These figures show that this policy is starting to stop that.”

War on Waste

Friends of the Earth’s head of campaigns Andrew Pendleton added: “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.

“England lagged on this, and should have followed the lead of Wales and Northern Ireland much sooner.”

Pendleton believes these figures represent a key sustainable business opportunity to place consumers at the heart of key resource efficiency initiatives – particularly in the wake of the recent success of the War on Waste campaign.  

 “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,” Pendleton said.

CSR gains

The carrier bag charge also represents something of a CSR success story, with retailers now using the profits gained from the charge to boost a number of i social development projects.

Asda, for example, announced last week that it would be passing its £1m carrier bag profits onto Scottish social enterprises. Marks & Spencer is also donated half of the proceeds from the bag charge to local charities,and the other half to international charities such as Macmillan Cancer Research and the Marine Conservation Society.

Scotland – which introduced the carrier bag a year earlier than England –  has seen a comparable decrease in usage, resulting in £13m in carbon savings and £60m worth of savings in litter and clean-up costs.

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Alex Baldwin

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