Lib Dem success – huge reduction in one-use plastic bags

 

When did you last pay 5p for a plastic bag to carry home your shopping from a supermarket?

When I went food shopping yesterday I selected from the pile of heavy duty bags that sit in the boot of my car. I can choose from bags that bear the logos of Tesco, Waitrose, Sainsbury’s, M&S or Lidl and for some time I’ve gone beyond feeling embarrassed if I use the ‘wrong’ bag in a shop. I very occasionally pay for a bag if I forget my own but it’s interesting that my reaction is one of guilt rather than annoyance, which I usually assuage by paying extra for a more expensive but reusable one.

And yet it is only last year that the 5p charge was introduced in England, although Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland had got there earlier through their devolved legislatures. We can thank the Lib Dems in Government for the charge in English supermarkets, even though some Tory ministers at the time hated it. In the first 6 months of the scheme the usage of thin plastic bags dropped by an amazing 83%, which equates to around 6 billion fewer bags each year.

Before the charge was introduced the main supermarkets had adopted a voluntary target to discourage the use of thin-gauge plastic bags, and this had resulted in an increase in the use of reusable ‘bags for life’ made from the thicker gauge plastic or from natural fibres. The additional charge pushed us a substantial way further along this path.

This is a good example of how a series of small nudges can substantially change behaviour. It is not, I think, because the charge is unaffordable, but because it pricks the conscience. We all know we should be doing something to reduce the levels of non-recyclable plastic waste, and particularly plastic bags which cause huge damage to wildlife on land and at sea. The charge also gives us an excuse to do something which for many years would have seemed rather naff – to carry branded bags INTO a shop.

One pleasing side effect of the policy is the £29 million donated by the supermarkets to charities from the sale of the bags, although, sadly, this sum is likely to reduce as sales decrease further.

I took some visitors to the spectacular Food Hall at Harrods the other day – no, I don’t do my weekly shop there – and was surprised we were not charged for a plastic bag to carry home the ridiculously overpriced jam. But it seems that businesses with fewer that 250 employees are exempt from making the charge. (I can only assume that Harrods is allowed to just count the staff in the Food Hall itself). As a party we want to remove this exemption, so that Harrods and local corner shops alike will have to charge for a bag.

Tim Farron has commented on this:

We always said the test of this policy would be by the amounts of bags that are cut from public consumption and the funds raised for charities – on both these tests this policy has passed.

I want to pay tribute to Kate Parminter who fought tirelessly for this policy and today’s figures are a testament to her. It was down to Liberal Democrats in Government that this policy happened – we announced it at our 2013 conference and we are now seeing what a huge impact it has had.

The facts are simple; single use bags blight our towns and countryside, they trap and suffocate wildlife, and plastic bags take hundreds of years to degrade. These figures show that this policy is starting to stop that.

 

* Mary Reid is a contributing editor on Lib Dem Voice. She was a councillor in Kingston upon Thames, where she is still very active with the local party, and is the Hon President of Kingston Lib Dems.

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9 Comments

  • David Evershed 1st Aug '16 - 12:19pm

    Contrary to popular belief, lightweight plastic bags are probably environmentally preferable to the alternatives. Their reduced use is to be condemned not celebrated.

    An Environment Agency study found that 40% of lightweight (High density polyethylene) plastic bags are reused as bin liners. By reducing the availability of lightweight bags there will have been an equivalent increase in the sale and usage of the more harmful heavyweight (Low density polyethylene) plastic bin liner.

    In addition, shopping bag usage alternatives to the lightweight plastic bag are likely to be more harmful to the environment. The paper, LDPE, non-woven polypropylene and cotton bags would have to be reused at least 3, 4, 11 and 131 times respectively to ensure that they have lower global warming potential than conventional HDPE carrier bags that are not reused.

    Findings included:

    Lightweight HDPE bags
    The conventional HDPE bag had the lowest environmental impacts of the lightweight
    bags in eight of the nine impact categories.

    Heavyweight LDPE (bin liner) bag
    The LDPE bag has to be used five times to reduce its global warming impact to below that of the conventional lightweight HPDE bag.

    Paper bag
    The paper bag has to be used four or more times to reduce its global warming potential to below that of the conventional HDPE bag, but was significantly worse than the conventional HDPE bag for human toxicity and terrestrial ecotoxicity due to the effect of paper production. However, it is unlikely the paper bag can be regularly reused the required number of times due to its low durability.

    Cotton bag
    The cotton bag has a greater impact than the conventional HDPE bag in seven of the
    nine impact categories even when used 173 times (i.e. the number of uses required to
    reduce the GWP of the cotton bag to that of the conventional HDPE bag with average
    secondary reuse).

    Starch Polyester bag
    The starch-polyester bag had the highest impact in seven of the nine impact categories
    considered. This was partially due to it weighing approximately twice that of the
    conventional HDPE bags but also due to the high impacts of raw material production,
    transport and the generation of methane from landfill.

    See full Environment Agency report at
    https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/291023/scho0711buan-e-e.pdf

  • Lorenzo Cherin 1st Aug '16 - 1:57pm

    David , while your facts and figures may be correct , you are surely missing the point .

    We can and still do use the light thin bags as for example , bin liners.

    We do utilise the cotton or thicker plastic bags that can last for a very long time .

    We therefore do not do damage as we would otherwise because we do not throw them away as much and therefore save things and show this to be increasingly the correct way .

    We pay money for them now which in of itself adds value and is of use to society.

    Mary is right to highlight this.

  • By reducing the availability of lightweight bags there will have been an equivalent increase in the sale and usage of the more harmful heavyweight (Low density polyethylene) plastic bin liner.

    Round my way the use of plastic bags for ‘bin liners’ is discouraged, aided by a regular bin cleaning service. So I don’t actually see a direct connection between the availability of ‘free’ plastic shopping bags and the sales of bin liners. In some respect’s the use of plastic bin liners is a hangover from the 70’s & 80’s when local councils decided they could no longer empty traditional dustbins – only to re-introduce them in the late 90’s in the form of the wheelie bin…

  • Eddie Sammon 1st Aug '16 - 4:50pm

    I was against the idea at the time, but it has been a success. However it shouldn’t go higher than 5p and arguably it should only be 1-2p and the supermarket should keep the money. I don’t think charities should be funded via levies on other people’s goods.

  • > The paper, LDPE, non-woven polypropylene and cotton bags would have to be reused at least 3, 4, 11 and 131 times respectively to ensure that they have lower global warming potential than conventional HDPE carrier bags that are not reused.

    Five years since the bag charge came in in Wales, I think my reusable bags have long since passed those numbers 🙂
    Predictions in ‘national’ newspapers that introducing the levy in England could lead to mass outbreaks of food poisoning (stories that disregarded England being the last nation to adopt the charge) happily don’t seem to have been borne out, either.

    By last September, the 5p charge had raised ‘between £17m and £22m’ (Wales Online) for charities. I don’t see why anyone would have a problem with that, or prefer that money to go to supermarkets??

  • Interesting details David. What about my Jute bags which are still going strong without any apparent wear?

  • “And yet it is only last year that the 5p charge was introduced in England, although Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland had got there earlier through their devolved legislatures.”

    If anyone is wondering…

    Wales: October 2011
    Scotland: October 2014
    NI: April 2013

    Why did it take 4 years for a successful policy to spread throughout the UK? It’s not like we have different attitudes to shopping in the different nations. I’m not sure Kate Parminter deserves congratulations as much as she does years of her life back.

  • Richard Underhill 12th Feb '17 - 12:25pm

    Returning to reusable (and stronger) bags has reduced the use of plastic bags by 80%, but the tory press seem curiously reluctant to give political credit to the Liberal Democrats, who announced this measure, or even to the coalition leadership which agreed it, perhaps because there was no increase in government spending involved.
    Other plastic packaging is also a problem and is polluting the oceans. Even Tories should want to know that plastic particles are absorbed by fish and they presumably know that some fish are eaten by humans, even in the UK.

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