Will a 5p plastic bag charge really change things for the environment?

Since Monday, all large shops (employing more than 250 staff) now charge 5p per plastic bag. There are a few exceptions to the charge, including the size of the shop, if you are buying fresh produce or uncooked meat. But even with these exceptions it is hoped that the scheme will cut 80 % of bag use in supermarkets, 50 % on the high street leading to a saving of £60 million on cleaning our streets and raise £730 million for good causes around the UK (BBC news, 2015).

But what does it mean for the UK’s natural environment? Will it actually reduce the problem of rubbish?

In 2012, 7 billion single use plastic bags were distributed to shoppers in England. That is 224 bags per second or 133 bags per person per year (Surfers Against Sewage, 2014).  Since 2012, the use of plastic bags has increased. It is now estimated that globally 500 billion to 1 trillion plastic bags are discarded every year (New Scientist, 2015). As single use bags, the majority of these bags tend to only end up in one of two places; the landfill or the natural environment. It is common to see plastic bags littering the ground and caught in trees and bushes, and this visibility may be a reason why plastic bags are being targeted over other sources of rubbish.


(Sheep stand in a field close to a landfill- The Guardian)

Plastic bags cause more harm than just spoiling the view and creating rubbish. Dead turtles and seabirds have been found with plastic bags in their stomachs, having ingested them believing they were food. Entanglement is another issue for many species. Often when plastic bags have been used as binbags, they contain more biodegradable waste, which is prevented from bio-degrading, filling up landfills quicker. In the longer term, plastic bags will photo-degrade to microplastics. The impact of microplastics on the environment and within the food chain (including us), is not yet understood.


(Fur seal caught in plastic bag Antarctica- British Antarctic Survey)

On a larger scale, oil is used to produced plastic and as we know our oil supply is finite and in producing plastic bags green house gases are released. However, ‘green’ cotton or paper bags also have an environmental impact. A cotton bag needs to be used 130 times to be ‘greener’ in the sense of the resources used to create it than a single-use plastic bag. However, that is easily achievable if we move from a throw-away society to one that reuses and recycles. Using the same bag every time we pop to the supermarket will easily clock up 130 uses.

But will a small charge on plastic bags work? In 2012, Ireland introduced a 5 cent charge and since then there has been a 90 % drop in the use of single-use plastic bags, reducing the plastic bag litter from 5 % to about 0.22 %. After several years, the use of bags did start to increase again, but this was countered by an increase in the charge for a plastic bag (Surfers Against Sewage, 2014). A similar reduction in bag use has been observed in other countries and shops (M&S) which have introduced charges.

However, one of the biggest benefits is actually social rather than directly environmental. By charging for plastic bags, the issue of rubbish and our (individual and societal) impact on the planet, on a locally and global scale, is emphasised. A small change in attitude from a throw-away society to one where environmental issues and resources are valued and the importance of sustainability and recycling is recognised, is a step in the right direction for a healthy, productive environment and planet.

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Hannah Lawson

Hannah Lawson

I'm a marine biologist working as an Environmental Scientist for a marine consultancy. I love nature and the marine environment. I try to spend as much of my spare time outside and getting involved with conservation and outdoor activities.
Hannah Lawson

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