Cat with plastic carrier bags

Single-use plastic bag sales down 95 per cent in UK

Image credit: Daniel Romero | Unsplash

The number of single-use plastic bags distributed by the big supermarkets in England has fallen by more than 95 per cent since a 5p charge was introduced in 2015, according to latest figures.

Data from the Environment Department (Defra) shows the main retailers sold 226 million single-use bags in the past financial year, 322 million fewer than in 2018/19.

This is a drop of 59 per cent year on year, with the average shopper buying four bags compared to 10 last year and a whopping 140 in 2014.

An estimated 7.6 billion bags a year were handed out by the leading supermarkets before the 5p charge was introduced in 2015. All retailers with more than 250 employees must apply the charge to their plastic bags, with many small businesses also reporting voluntarily. Combined, approximately 564 million bags were sold in the latest financial year, compared to 1.11 billion in 2018/19.

The Government has consulted on extending the charge to all businesses and increasing the minimum charge for single-use bags to 10p. The response to the consultation is expected to be published “in due course”.

George Eustice, environment secretary, said: “It is so encouraging to see in such a short space of time the huge difference our plastic carrier bag charge has had in reducing the amount of plastic we use in our everyday lives.

“We have all seen first-hand the devastating impact that plastic bags have on the environment, littering our beautiful countryside and threatening the world’s marine life.

“I am committed to driving this progress further and I hope this continues to inspire similar action across the globe.”

Environmental campaign group Greenpeace warned of rising sales for the more expensive 'bags for life', which are intended to be repeatedly reused - although this is often not the case - and contain more plastic than the single-use carrier bags.

Sam Chetan Welsh, political campaigner at Greenpeace, said: “To deter people from using 'bags for life' like throwaways, the Government should increase the cost of bags for life, which successfully led to decreased sales in the Republic of Ireland - or ideally should ban them.”

Welsh called for reductions in plastic packaging across every aisle of the supermarket as well as at check-outs: “Whilst today’s figures are a step in the right direction, the Government shouldn’t congratulate itself too much until this hard work is done.”

Tom Fyans, campaigns and a policy director at CPRE, the countryside charity, said: “As one of the organisations that long campaigned for a carrier bag charge to be introduced, we are pleased to see it having the desired effect.

“We can’t stop there. Our throwaway culture persists, with the litter newcomers of gloves and face masks adding to the waste that blights the countryside and harms wildlife.”

He called for charges on all single-use, throwaway items, incentivising reuse systems and for the Government to commit to an all-in deposit return scheme for drinks containers.

The Defra data also revealed £9.2m was donated to good causes in 2019/2020 from carrier sales, a figure which has fallen significantly as the amount of single-use bags bought has dwindled.

The global movement against single-use, disposable plastics continues to gather momentum. Earlier this year, the Welsh Government said it will ban single-use plastics from 2021 as part of plans to move the country towards a circular economy. The ban will include a wide array of commonly available plastic items including straws, stirrers, cotton buds and cutlery.

In January, Sainsbury's announced that it intends to become a net zero carbon company by 2040 and has committed £1bn over the next 20 years to reach that goal. Part of its efforts will include dramatically reducing the plastic packaging for food, as well as increasing its efforts around recycling.

E&T previously explored many different aspects of the plastics problem in our special themed issue.

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