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UK plastic bag charge helps drop sales by almost half on previous year

A charge on plastic bags in the UK, introduced in 2015, has proven successful with the average person buying just 10 bags a year now, compared to 140 bags in 2014.

The UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs released the figures in late July, which also showed sales of plastic bags by the seven largest retailers in England have fallen by 90 per cent since the 5p charge was introduced.

Asda, Marks and Spencer, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s, The Co-operative Group, Tesco and Waitrose sold 549 million single-use plastic bags in 2018/19, – a drop of almost half on the previous year (490 million fewer).

Large retailers are required to charge a minimum of 5p per bag for carrier bags that are all of the following:

• Unused – it is new and has not already been used for sold goods to be taken away or delivered;

• Plastic and up to 70 microns thick;

• Has handles, an opening and isn’t sealed; and

• Is sold by a large retailer who employs 250 or more full-time equivalent employees in total (not just in retail roles).

Environment Secretary, Theresa Villiers, said the action to slash plastic waste and leave the environment in a better state continues to deliver results.

“No one wants to see the devastating impact plastic waste is having on our precious wildlife. Today’s figures are a powerful demonstration that we are collectively calling time on being a throwaway society,” Villiers said.

The total single-use carrier bag sales reported by all large retailers in 2018/2019 fell 37 per cent to 1.11 billion compared with the previous year.

The UK is also cracking down on plastic waste with new initiatives such as banning products containing microbeads in January 2018, and recently confirming a ban on the supply of plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds in April 2020.

The UK government is also introducing a tax on plastic packaging that does not meet a minimum threshold of at least 30 per cent recycled content from April 2022.

While the UK is taking steps to reduce single-use plastic packaging and to hold manufacturers accountable when creating new products, the country lags when it comes to initiatives such as a container deposit scheme (CDS), which most states in Australia already have.

The UK government is currently consulting on introducing a CDS in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Meanwhile, retailers have taken it upon themselves to begin return schemes, with retailer Iceland trialling using reverse vending machines in 2018.

Iceland was the first UK supermarket to install such machines in support of the government’s proposed deposit return scheme in England.