Face facts: It’s time to end this harmful relationship and break up with single-use plastic bags

As the British Government looks to tighten legislation, we call for a total phase-out of the single-use plastic bag and a significant price increase on the so-called ‘bag for life’..

Could there be an item more emblematic of our toxic convenience culture than the single-use plastic bag?

Used on average for 20 minutes, these lightweight bags remain in the natural environment for centuries, breaking down into harmful microplastic fragments. They have been identified as one of the most dangerous forms of pollution to marine species that are easily entangled and cause digestive problems and starvation if mistaken for food.

Given the wide availability of easy-to-use reusable alternatives, getting rid of single-use bags have to be one of the biggest no-brainers when it comes to clamping down on pointless plastic.

In 2015, England introduced a 5p charge on single-use plastic bags sold by big retailers, following Scotland in 2014 and Wales in 2011. This led to a dramatic fall in their use – by over 80 per cent – and UK-wide reduction efforts may already have contributed to a reduction of plastic bags observed in the marine environment.

Plastic bag found by a NOAA expedition to the Marianas in 2016 (NOAA)

Plastic has pervaded all areas of the world, including the remote Marianas

While this is great news, there’s still work to be done. In England, small businesses are exempt from the charge and in 2017 alone they used an estimated 3.6 billion single-use bags. Leading larger retailers, despite the charge, still sold 700 million unnecessary plastic bags in 2017.

Also concerning is the rise of the so-called ‘bag for life’, not covered by existing legislation. Large stores sold 1.18 billion of these last year, equivalent to 44 per household, almost one a week. This is far more than is needed for the average shopping trip, showing that many people are buying them as a single-use option, something that will clearly undermine the success of the 5p charge. Indeed, supermarket Iceland stopped selling single-use bags in 2018 but reported that despite removing quarter of a billion, the volume of plastic remained unchanged because ‘reusable’ alternatives contain a thicker grade of plastic

The British Government is currently consulting on extending the single-use plastic bag charge to cover smaller retailers and raising the price from 5p to 10p. It never made sense not to apply the charge to small retailers, given that two-thirds of these businesses support the mandatory charge and 42 per cent of independent retailers already voluntarily charging for them. However, we don’t think a 10p charge is enough – we need to ban the single-use bag carrier altogether and enforce a minimum price of at least 60p on ‘bags for life’ to make sure they really are a long-term purchase.

The Government estimates that even with the price of the single-use bag at 10p, more than 13,000 million would still be sold between 2018-28, in addition to billions of ‘bags for life’, paper bags and bin liners. This is a totally unnecessary waste stream and environmental risk.

To dismantle the single-use culture that underpins the plastic pollution crisis, it is critical to fundamentally challenge this behaviour and encourage a wholescale shift to reuse. Banning the single-use bag would be a small but significant step in this direction.

Studies support a hefty increase in the charge for all carrier bags. Recent polling found that 58 per cent of people were willing to pay 20p for a supermarket carrier bag. Out of that 58 per cent, 34 per cent would pay as much as 50p. In Ireland, bags designed for re-use must be sold for 70 cents (roughly 60p) or more. Similarly, we urge the Government to raise the price of ‘bags for life’ to at least 60p, preferably higher, or risk jeopardising the environmental gains achieved through the charge.

It is also critical to prevent a simple substitution of one single-use material for another, which could also have negative environmental consequences. We therefore encourage the Government to extend the charge to cover paper bags too.

Until 22 February, you can take action to call on the Government to step up its game on plastic bags, filling in the consultation survey online. Please use your voice to show support for a tough approach. We’ve provided some suggested text below for the two key questions, which you could use to base your response upon (don’t worry – you don’t need to fill out all the questions):

6. The Government proposes to extend the Single-use Carrier Bag charge to all retailers in England. Do you agree with this proposal?

Tick – Yes!

Given the widespread support among convenience stores – with two-thirds supportive of mandatory plastic bag charging in England – extending the legislation is a logical next step to further reducing the environmental impact of single-use plastic bags.

To prevent the substitution of one single-use item for another, which could have negative environmental impacts, the Government should also extend legislation to cover paper bags. In Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, most types of paper bags are already charged for. It would therefore be consistent for England to follow the same approach and truly encourage a culture of reuse.

8. Do you support the proposal to increase the minimum charge from 5p to 10p?

Tick – Yes!

I am supportive of an increase the charge, but I urge the Government to go further by banning single-use bags altogether, joining a growing number of countries such as India and Kenya that have already done so.

Figures from the Government’s Impact Assessment estimate that over 13,000 million single-use carriers would be used between 2018-28 under a scenario where the charge is raised to 10p. This is wasteful and unnecessary, given the extensive availability of reusable alternatives. The Government is committed in its 25 Year Environment Plan to eliminate all avoidable plastic waste and banning the single-use bag would be clearly aligned with this commitment.

I also encourage the Government to increase the minimum price of the so-called ‘bag for life’ because many shoppers are using these as a single-use option. Given their higher plastic content and the estimated future increase in their sales, a lack of intervention will seriously undermine the success of the Government’s single-use bag charge. A charge of at least 60p should be introduced to prevent the bag for life from becoming the single-use option.

Thanks for taking action on this issue!