Plastic bag charge: 10 fascinating facts about the scheme’s sustainability success

With new Government figures revealing an 83% reduction in single-use carrier bag sales since the instruction of a 5p charge in England, edie delves deep into the data to bring you 10 facts and statistics that you probably didn't know about the scheme and its effects.

This time last year, Defra’s carrier bag statistics revealed the early signs of success for the carrier bag charge, which was introduced in England in October 2015. Single-use carrier bag usage had dropped from seven billion to just over half a billion within six months. 

The 5p levy was dually welcomed as “a massive boon for nature and wildlife” by Friends of the Earth, and as a “Lib Dem success story” by the party’s Leader Tim Farron.

Twelve months on, and plastic bag sales continue to plummet, but some key questions remain: should the CSR focus be on raising money for charity, or selling fewer single-use bags? Should retailers consider charging more money for single-use bags to deter shoppers from purchasing any? And could a different sales model entirely – such as a take-back scheme – be the logical next step in reducing plastic bag usage?

The latest Defra plastic bag figures, announced by Environment Secretary Michael Gove on Friday, have been analysed below, along with the results of a consumer survey which investigated how the 5p charge is driving behaviour change.  

1) The number of single-use plastic bags sold by large retailers has dropped by 83% since the carrier bag charge

According to Defra’s data, large retailers in England sold 2.1 billion single-use plastic carrier bags during the year from 7 April 2016 to 6 April 2017.

England’s seven main retailers (Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda, Morrisons, M&S, Co-op and Waitrose) sold 83% fewer single-use plastic bags in 2016 compared with 2014 – the latest full year of data which was gathered by WRAP.

This is equivalent to each person in the population using around 25 bags during 2016 to 2017, compared with around 140 bags a year before the charge, Defra said.

2) Sainsburys sold 585,418,822 fewer single-use plastic bags than Tesco in 2016

Here’s where the data gets very interesting. Of the seven major retailers, Tesco, Asda, M&S, Waitrose, Morrisons, and Co-op still offer single-use bags that are less than 0.07mm thick (and are therefore deemed ‘single-use’). Sainsbury’s, on the other hand, has replaced all of its plastic bags with sturdier, reusable carrier bags that are slightly thicker than the 0.07mm ‘single-use’ benchmark, offering free replacements when the thicker variants wear out.

The thicker bags technically fall outside of the new law, meaning they are not reported in these annual figures – hence Sainsbury’s appearing to sell 585 million fewer ‘single-use’ plastic bags in 2016, as set out in the table below. The 51.8 million single-use carrier bags which Sainsbury’s did sell came from online orders, which are sold in bags that are less than the 0.7mm threshold. 

3) Sainsbury’s removal of single-use bags appears to be paying off

Since the introduction of the charge, Sainsbury’s has seemingly focused on making its bags thicker and more re-usable, to reduce the overall environmental impact of the bags it sells. A statement on the retailer’s website reads: “Our aim has always been to reduce the number of carrier bags used by our customers, reflecting the environmental objectives set out in this legislation.

When contacted by edie about the number of thicker, re-usable bags that Sainsbury’s now sells, a spokesperson for the supermarket chain revealed that it saw 80% year-on-year reduction in the total number of carrier bags issued to customers in 2015-16 – from 25 million to 5 million per week.

The spokesperson also confirmed that, for Sainsbusy’s online customers, the retailer has introduced ‘bagless’ deliveries to encourage behaviour change, with more than half of online shoppers now choose the bagless option. 

4) … And Tesco could soon be following suit

On the first anniversary of the carrier bag charge, the UK’s largest supermarket group, Tesco, revealed that more than 1.5 billion single-use carrier bags had been saved by its customers in England since the levy’s introduction. Moreover, the company is by far and away the largest donator of net proceeds from the charge, with £23.1m donated to more than 1,100 community projects through Tesco’s Bags of Help scheme. 

However, the fact remains that Tesco is by far the biggest seller of single-use plastic bags – it sells almost as much single-use bags as the other six major retailers combined (637.2 million versus 690.3 million). And the retail giant is looking to do something about it…

As edie reported in May, Tesco has undertaken a 10-week trial in three stores – Aberdeen, Dundee and Norwich – to see how customers manage without the 5p bag option. Shoppers who forget to bring their own bags will still be able to buy more expensive re-usable bags which start at 10p. Online shoppers also have the choice of the 5p bags or no bags at all and 57 % now choose bagless deliveries.

A spokesperson for Tesco told edie that this trial is still underway, and the retailer will be studying its results to work out the next steps. 

5) More than £66m of the money generated from the carrier bag charge was donated to good causes

Almost two-thirds of retailers voluntarily provided additional information to Defra on how much they had donated to good causes. These retailers donated over £66m to good causes, amounting to 4p for every single-use bag sold by them.

Based on the data from 168 retailers, approximately £33m went to local causes chosen by customers or staff; approximately £20m went to good causes relating to charity or voluntary sectors, environment and health; and approximately £13m went to a combination of good causes (including research, education, arts, heritage and sports).

6) Half of the money donated is going towards local good causes

Seventy-one percent of retailers that provided voluntary information on donations (including Marks & Spencer, Waitrose and Morrisons) donated to good causes relating to charity or voluntary sectors, environment and health. 

Eighteen percent of retailers (including Tesco, Sainsbury’s and The Co-operative Group) donated to local causes chosen by customers or staff. 

And 11% of retailers (including Asda) chose to donate to one or more good causes relating to research, education, art, heritage, sports, environment, health, charity or voluntary sectors.

7) Lidl is the largest retailer to keep some of the money raised from the carrier bag charge

Forty-six of the 263 retailers that reported annual carrier bag sales figures to Defra said they retained all or part of the money from the charge – with many claiming this was because the cost of making the bags was equal to or greater than the levy. 

German discount retailer Lidl has, from this month, stopped selling 5p disposable carrier bags and will instead sell thicker, re-usable ones for the same price.

Like Sainsbury’s, this approach means that Lidl is under no obligation to pass any proceeds of the 5p charge onto good causes. However, unlike Sainsbury’s, Lidl is reportedly choosing to retain some of the proceeds. 

A statement from Lidl within Defra’s latest dataset reads: “a significant proportion of the proceeds from single-use carrier bag sales have been donated to Lidl UK’s national charity partners and Keep Britain Tidy“. edie was unable to obtain additional information from Lidl on the amount of money it will be retaining from the carrier bag charge it is imposing. 

8) The carrier bag chare is driving behaviour change among consumers

A survey carried out by commercial recycling and waste disposal firm Business Waste has revealed how the carrier bag charge is influencing shopper behaviours. 

The survey, of 2,000 shoppers who patronise a wide range of stores from the budget end to the luxury end of the market, revealed that 84% of shoppers stopped buying plastic carrier bags following the introduction of the 5p levy in October 2015. 

However, it appears to be a case of ‘old habits die hard’ as consumer behaviours have not changed completely. When asked whether they were routinely paying 5p for carrier bags at the supermarket, more than half of shoppers said yes, with just 36% saying no.  

9) But 5p leaves people “in their comfort zone”

The Business Waste survey goes on to ask shoppers how much they would be willing to pay for a carrier bag in the future. Interestingly, 38% of respondents said that 20p is the most they would be willing to pay for a bag – the popular option. Should the UK therefore consider raising the charge to 20p? 

No, says Business Waste’s chief executive Mark Hall. While it would be good for charities, raising the plastic bag fee to 20p would only leave people in a comfort zone where they won’t miss the money, Hall said. 

“We want to see that [carrier bag usage] figure fall to zero within five years. The only way that can be done is by increasing the charge, while making reusable bags cheap and widely available.

10) Plastic bag take-back could be the next game-changer 

Of course, the carrier bag charge has been hugely successful so far. But could there be an even more effective way of reducing waste in this area?

One potential next step to reduce carrier bag charge has been investigated in Sweden, where a pilot programme achieved an 80% drop in plastic bag usage following the introduction of a take-back scheme for bags.

A refundable fee of two Swedish Krona – around 20p – per bag was introduced for customers of an electrical retail outlet in Stockholm. During a two-month period, 20% of 3,200 customers paid the charge for a plastic bag while around 80% did without one.

Around 2% returned their used carrier bags but researchers suggest this figure could rise substantially if the system was made widely available at other outlets.

“These findings show that there is real potential for Sweden to lower its use of plastic bags significantly by introducing a policy like ‘take-back’ to incentivise consumers to be more environmentally friendly,” said Dr Jagdeep Sing from Nottingham Trent University, which collaborated on the trial. “Not only will this reduce the amount of waste plastic going to landfill, but it will save on the carbon, energy and water footprints of making so many plastic carrier bags in the first place.”

Sector summary: The state of sustainability in retail

edie recently published a new sector summary report exploring the state of sustainability in Britain’s retail industry. The report was produced with input from the BRC and incorporates the key findings from our own industry survey to outline five drivers, challenges and opportunities facing sustainability professionals in the sector.

Case studies from the likes of Argos, Tesco and Amazon are combined with exclusive commentary from retail firms such as Co-Op, M&S and Stella McCartney in the 17-page report, which concludes with a look at some of the latest technologies and innovations which are shaping the retail business models of the future.

Read the retail sector summary here.

Luke Nicholls

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