Stemming the tide of plastic bags choking the world’s oceans

True horror lies not in crumbling Gothic graveyards or the trappings of midnight movies but in the disturbing implications of mundane things. Having spent years researching the impacts of marine debris and long hours looking at pictures of creatures with plastic clogging their stomachs, now when I stand in a supermarket queue and see an endless tide of plastic bags flow from the checkouts to the world beyond all I can think about is where those bags are going to end up.

The plastic bag has become a symbol of our throwaway culture, a visual blight on our landscape littering roadsides, choking waterways and polluting oceans (in which it is just one of many types of marine debris). It is a key example of the failure to accord plastic the real value of its negative impacts, which is reflected in wanton consumption and disposal patterns: non-degradable, rarely recycled and of no cost to consumers, plastic bags are widely disposed of after just a few minutes use. What’s more, the very same properties that have made them commercially successful – their low weight and resistance to degradation – contribute to their accumulation in the environment.

A sea of troubles

In the UK, the number of plastic bags used by supermarket customers has been rising since 2009, reaching an estimated 8.3 billion in 2013. Research by Surfrider Europe found that plastic bags were the third most common type of litter on European beaches, lakes and rivers, and it is estimated that eight billion bags litter Europe every year. Once loose in the marine environment, the impacts on marine life are drastic and troubling as plastics both entangle and are ingested by wildlife, causing disease and death. For example, over 90 per cent of dead fulmars that are examined are now found to have plastic in their stomachs, and Ocean Conservancy reports that over the past 25 years, 10 per cent of animals found dead in beach clean-ups were entangled in plastic bags.

An emaciated Cuvier’s beaked whale which stranded on the French coast was found to have ingested 378 plastic items, including seven supermarket plastic bags, and on UK shores another such whale stranded with its stomach blocked with plastic. Now there are increasing concerns regarding the impacts of microplastics which, loaded with toxic chemicals, can be ingested by organisms throughout the food chain, from corals and mussels to fish and marine mammals. I’m sure many share my repulsion at the effects our swiftly discarded but irresistibly convenient carrier bags are having in our oceans.

Some may question why our focus should be on banishing plastic bags, since they are not necessarily the most damaging or prevalent litter type. However, the answer is simple: because we can. It is the low-hanging fruit in tackling plastic pollution, and with the success of bans and levies on single-use bags already widely demonstrated it is an effective and achievable first step in addressing the issue of plastic waste. .

Plastic bag infographic (c) EIA

Plastic bag infographic (c) EIA

The bag issue

Certain issues crop up every time bans or levies on single-use bags are mentioned, the most popular being the domestic reuse of plastic bags as bin-liners. Some resource-efficient individuals do indeed use plastic bags as bin liners and when charges or bans are implemented they have to shift to buying bin bags. However, evidence from the Welsh charge demonstrated only a small increase in bin bag sales, amounting to around four per cent of the material saved overall, so clearly this marginal increase did not negate the overall success of the levy which saw a drop in carrier bag use of over 70 per cent.

Plastic bag lobbyists often cite a UK Environment Agency life cycle assessment which found that the global warming impact of lightweight plastic bags was lower than that of other types of bags (paper, bags for life, etc.). However, this study did not consider the environmental impacts of non-biodegradable waste and littering, and also found that, if reused, the global warming impact of bags for life quickly falls below that of single-use bags. This illustrates that the fundamental aim of levies and bans must be waste prevention: that is, to reduce consumption of all types of single-use bag. By necessity, measures must therefore be comprehensive and cover plastic and paper alike in order to shift behaviour patterns to the use of reusable bags, rather than substituting one disposable product with another.

In 2011, EU Member States invited the European Commission to assess the scope for action on plastic bags, starting a three-year process to agree measures. The Commission’s impact assessment showed that a Europe-wide ban on single-use plastic bags would result in an economic benefit of €899.5 million per year through cost reductions in waste management and for retailers, would reduce oil use by 842,000 tonnes and avoid emissions of 147.6 million tonnes of CO2.

Despite the clear economic, social and environmental gains and overwhelming public support for bans, the Commission proposed relatively weak measures. These were significantly strengthened by the environmentally minded European Parliament but subsequently weakened again during negotiations with EU member states.

A compromise was finally agreed at the end of 2014, with member states given the choice to either introduce mandatory pricing of single-use plastic bags or undertake other measures providing they meet targets of less than 40 lightweight plastic carrier bags used per person per year by 2025. While not an ideal outcome – given that banning single-use bags altogether makes perfect sense – it was nonetheless a step forwards.

Punching our way out of a plastic bag

Dolphin and plastic bag (c) Globice

Dolphin entangled in a plastic bag (c) Globice

So, with new EU legislation in place, what has England decided to do? Well, after years of the Government asking retailers to shoulder responsibility they refused to participate in another voluntary agreement and in September 2013 the Deputy Prime Minister announced plans to introduce a mandatory 5p charge for single-use plastic carrier bags from October 2015. While many would have preferred an outright ban, that would have required new legislation, so a compromise was adopted for expediency’s sake. However, the final proposal was riddled with exemptions: not only does the 5p charge apply only to plastic bags (not all single-use bags) but there is also a sizeable exemption for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

It is difficult to understand why England has chosen to ignore the successful examples set by Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland which have all now implemented effective, comprehensive levies on all types of single-use bags across all retailers. Instead, the coalition Government plans to introduce a charge difficult for retailers to implement, inconsistent with those found elsewhere in the UK and which, with different rules for different shops and different types of bags, sends a confusing message to consumers which undermines the behaviour change the levy is intended to precipitate.

Defra’s own impact assessment unsurprisingly shows that the greatest economic and environmental benefit would arise from a charge by all retailers. Small business associations actually want to be included in the levy on the grounds that an exemption deprives them of the financial savings of stocking fewer plastic bags and prevents them from recovering costs. But despite criticism from the Environmental Audit Committee, NGOs and businesses themselves the exemption has been doggedly maintained, all in pursuit of adherence to Government policy against imposing new regulatory requirements on SMEs. Never mind that concerns regarding administrative burdens could have easily been resolved by lifting reporting requirements as done in Wales. So in pursuit of a policy protecting SMEs, SMEs are likely being disadvantaged.

Instead of demonstrating leadership and ambition by aiming for the more than the 70 per cent reductions seen in Wales and Northern Ireland, the Government is settling for a target of 50–60 per cent, thereby risking the UK’s capacity to meet EU targets. Deputy PM Nick Clegg has pledged that the Lib Dems would remove the exemptions if they win the election, a policy which would in turn remove an extra 3.5 billion plastic bags and 328 million papers bags from circulation each year and save small businesses £300m annually. But given the slim chances of a Lib Dem win, this doesn’t fill me with much hope and I can’t help feeling it would have been more meaningful to have made a greater effort to overcome the coalition Government’s short-sightedness this side of the election.

Although falling short of what could have been achieved, I hope that the English charge and EU directive will be the first of many measures introduced to tackle waste and pollution. A strong implementation of the Marine Strategy Framework Directive offers one route, and the proposed EU circular economy package is another beacon on the horizon.

We already know many of the solutions for tackling litter and we already have many, although not all, of the instruments in place; what is needed now is the political will to enact and enforce them.


• First published as a guest blog for Isonomia