Supermarket plastic bag charge has led to 98% drop in use in England, data shows
Ministers urged to learn from success of single-use bag fee, amid criticism that other measures have been delayed
Environmental campaigners have called on the government to learn from its own successes after official figures showed the use of single-use supermarket plastic bags had fallen 98% since retailers in England began charging for them in 2015.
Annual distribution of plastic carrier bags by seven leading grocery chains plummeted from 7.6bn in 2014 to 133m last year, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said on Monday.
Rebecca Pow, the minister for environmental quality and resilience, said the policy had “helped to stop billions of single-use carrier bags littering our neighbourhoods or heading to landfill”. The government claimed the average person in England now bought just two single-use carrier bags a year from major retailers.
Campaigners welcomed the finding but said the statistic did not account for all types of plastic bag . They also questioned the timing of the announcement, made as experts said plans for 100 new North Sea oil and gas wells, announced the same day by the prime minister would “send a wrecking ball through the UK’s climate commitments”.
A 5p charge for carrier bags was introduced in English supermarkets in 2015. In 2021, the charge was increased to 10p and extended to all businesses. Since then, the number of plastic bags used across all retailers had fallen 35%, from 627m in 2019-20 to 406m in 2022-23, Defra said.
Wales had introduced a 5p charge in 2011, Northern Ireland followed suit in 2013 and Scotland did so in 2014. Scotland and Northern Ireland have since raised their charges to 10p and 25p respectively.
“This 98% reduction in single-use plastic bags shows inserting a plastic tax at the point of sale is a good policy for reducing consumer plastic bag use,” said Steve Hynd of City to Sea, which campaigns for an end to the production of single-use plastics. But he said the data did not include sales of bags for life, nor did it break down the distribution between in-store shopping and home delivery.
The charge is one of several measures introduced by the government to reduce the production of single-use plastics. In 2018 it banned microbeads in “rinse-off personal care products”, in 2020 came restrictions on the supply of single-use plastic straws, drink stirrers and cotton buds, and in 2022 a tax was introduced on plastic packaging that was not at least 30% recycled. But campaigners said other promised measures had been delayed.
Nina Schrank, the head of Greenpeace UK’s plastic campaign, said: “The success of the plastic bag charge shows that when the government takes real action it gets results and the public gets on board. It’s ironic then for these figures to come out just as ministers are busy delaying vital plans to tackle the scourge of single-use plastic.
“Both the deposit return scheme and new rules to make plastic producers contribute to clean-up costs, which formed the key planks of the government’s waste strategy, have been delayed until 2025. Instead of letting plastic polluters off the hook, ministers should bring in legally binding targets to force companies to turn off the plastic waste tap at the source.”
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Hynd said far more needed to be done. “This is just one small step in a much longer journey to tackle plastic pollution. To be considered global leaders in tackling plastic pollution they need to be setting themselves reduction, refill and reuse targets and they also need to be implementing their own policies, such as an all-in deposit return scheme, like they promised in their 2015 manifesto, and the long-awaited extended producer responsibility policy.
“There’s obvious context here, which is that they reannounced the success of the single-use plastic bag ban on the same day that they unveiled a hugely destructive plans for 100 new oil and gas licences.”Privacy Notice: