Single-use plastic bags have reduced in number after the 2015 bag levy

Single-use plastic bags: Charge ‘has helped remove 7bn grocery bags from circulation’

More than seven billion single-use plastic bags from UK grocers have been removed from circulation due to the introduction of a fee for this packaging in 2015, the government has claimed.

The average person in England now buys two single-use plastic bags a year from Asda, Marks & Spencer, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s, Co-op Food, Tesco and Waitrose, according to official figures released by environment minister, Rebecca Pow.

Before the 5p charge came in – a fee that increased to 10p in 2021 and one year earlier in Scotland – English supermarket shoppers would typically use 140 single-use plastic bags a year. But now instead of the 7.6 billion carriers used in 2014, the figure for usage in 2022-23 was 133 million.

The charge brought in two years ago was extended to all businesses, and the government said this has helped bring the number of bags used down by more than 35% from 627 million in 2019-20 to 406 million in 2022-23.

In addition, retailers have voluntarily donated more than £206 million from the proceeds of sales of single-use plastic bags to various good causes.

Pow said: “Our charge has helped to stop billions of single-use carrier bags littering our neighbourhoods or heading to landfill while ensuring millions of pounds go to good causes.

“We are determined to do more to tackle plastic pollution at source, with further bans on single-use products starting in October and our deposit return scheme [a delayed initiative that was due to come into operation in Scotland in 2024 until the Scottish government postponed it accusing Westminster of moving the goalposts] will cut litter and drive up recycling rates. We continue to encourage all relevant retailers to play their part in further reducing the use of single-use carrier bags.”

Andrew Opie, director of food & sustainability at the British Retail Consortium trade body, commented: “Retailers have worked closely with the government over the single-use bag charges to ensure it has been an industry-wide success – with 98% fewer bags used across the biggest grocery retailers.”

The reduction in single-use plastic bags and the levy on their distribution should be applauded in terms of cutting out waste and potential pollution. However, much of the packaging has been replaced by the ‘bag for life’, which retailers including Co-op have since phased out citing this material’s own environmental problems.

The UK government has also been criticised by environmental groups this week for granting 100 new licences for oil and gas drilling in the North Sea.

Prime minister Rishi Sunak argued it was necessary for protecting the UK’s energy security, and introduced the news by explaining it will be accompanied by more investment in as yet unproven carbon capture and storage technology.

Jess Ralston, head of energy at the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit, said: “Government is currently subsidising oil and gas companies to drill more in the North Sea.

“This will not bring down bills as there isn’t enough gas to move the dial on international market prices and the oil and gas industry’s own estimates show the North Sea will continue to decline no matter what the government policy is.”

She added: “Prioritising oil and gas over cheaper renewables and pushing back regulations on insulation in rental homes, both of which would bring down bills, is against advice from the International Energy Agency, United Nations and Climate Change Committee. And while carbon capture will be an important technology for some industries, like manufacturing, it’s yet to be seen how much it will cost or where it will be most useful.”

Ralston continued: “The OBR has warned the UK’s heavy gas dependency could see the national debt go up by 13% of GDP as similar gas price crises happen in future. This decision and its timing will also be questioned internationally, as global warming continues to drive extreme weather like heatwaves and wildfires devastating Europe and Canada today.”

[Image credit: Green Retail World]

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