Close up image of a plastic bag on the sea bed

Time to turn the tide of plastic waste choking our oceans

As a mandatory 5p charge for plastic bags comes into effect in England today, EIA releases a new report calling on governments, industry, retailers and consumers alike to help end the appalling damage plastic waste inflicts on marine environments.

Lost at Sea – The urgent need to tackle marine litter urges a focus on cutting single-use plastics, removing plastics from down-the-drain products and embracing circular economy principles to dramatically reduce and better recycle plastic products and packaging.

Global plastics production has soared from five million tonnes a year in the 1960s to a staggering 299 million tonnes in 2013, with uses ranging from packaging and toys to clothes, computers and beauty products. Europe is the world’s second largest plastics producer, after China, the majority of which are destined for packaging.

An estimated 4.8 to 12.7 million tonnes of plastics enter the world’s oceans every year due to littering and inadequate waste management; without action to address the problem, this figure is expected to increase to as much as 28 million tonnes a year by 2025.

“Plastic waste pollutes and causes immense damage to fragile marine environments, it impacts many endangered species and it’s a problem that’s not going away any time soon,” said Clare Perry, Team Leader of EIA’s Oceans Campaign.

“No area is uncontaminated by plastics – they are fatally ingested by seabirds off remote islands, concentrate in Arctic Sea ice and are accumulating in deep sea sediments.

“Plastics may fragment but they do not biodegrade, leading to an inexorable rise in quantities found in the marine environment.”

A mounting threat is posed by microplastics, fragments less than 5mm in size which come from such sources as plastic pellets (also known as nurdles), microbeads used in down-the-drain personal care products and household cleaners, microfibres from synthetic clothing and the break-down of larger plastic objects. They are ingested by a range of marine organisms, from commercially important fish and shellfish to baleen whales and may result in negative physical and toxicological effects.

The report concludes with a variety of recommendations for governments, industry, retailers and consumers to take meaningful actions ranging from binding waste prevention and recycling targets and bans and levies on single-use products to the removal of plastics from down-the-drain products and using consumer power to avoid single-use and overly packaged products.

Q&A – the English plastic bag charge

On October 5, 2015 the UK Government introduced a new minimum 5p charge in England for single-use plastic bags. Large retailers will charge for single-use plastic bags, but not for other types of bags (e.g. paper bags). Small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs, organisations with fewer than 250 employees) can voluntarily apply a charge but will not have to charge customers for plastic bags.

Although the levy is an improvement on the current situation, the English plastic bag charge has several significant flaws. Retailers, recyclers, MPs and NGOs alike have signalled to Government that the charge should apply to all types of single-use bags (paper and plastic) and all sizes and types of retailers. With multiple exemptions, the proposed measures will be confusing for consumers and retailers, will not alleviate costs incurred by SMEs and are not consistent with measures adopted in the rest of the UK.

Why is a charge on single-use bags necessary?

England is the last country in the UK to start charging for plastic bags. In England, 7.6 billion single-use bags were used by supermarket customers in 2014, over than a billion more than in 2010[i] .

Plastic bags are the third most common type of litter found on European beaches, lakes and rivers, with an average of 38 bags found in every kilometre of UK beach surveyed.[ii] Once in the marine environment, plastic bags can entangle or be ingested by a wide range of marine wildlife causing mortalities and injuries. Over the past 25 years, 10 per cent of all dead animals found in beach clean-ups worldwide were entangled in plastic bags[iii].

As plastics do not biodegrade, quantities of plastic waste and its associated impacts will increase over time unless sources are eliminated. Plastic bags can persist in the marine environment for hundreds of years before eventually breaking down into microplastics, small plastic fragments which adsorb and concentrate chemical contaminants. These can be ingested by marine organisms throughout the food chain, facilitating their transfer into marine food webs. In some areas in Europe microplastics are now more abundant than fish larvae.[iv]

Charging for plastic bags is an effective way to swiftly reduce consumption and therefore the number of bags littering the environment.

Where do the proceeds of the 5p charge go?

The English levy is predicted to generate approximately £70 million in revenue, approximately £6 million of which will cover retailers’ administration costs, and with a VAT take of about £19 million. Although retailers are not obligated to, it is expected that they will donate the remainder (£45 million) to charitable causes. MPs have recommended that the VAT proceeds are used to fund environmental programmes and to monitor the effectiveness of the scheme.[v]

What do the exemptions mean?

Exemptions for different size retailers – small and medium size retailers do not have to charge customers for plastic bags under the new scheme, due to Government policy not to impose any new regulation or burden on SMEs. Stores that are part of a franchise or symbol group only count the employees in their business, rather than for all stores within the franchise. The exemption for SMEs has been contested by many SMEs (including the National Federation of Retail Newsagents, Association of Convenience Stores, British Retail Consortium and the Booksellers Association) who have asked to be included in the scheme due to the cost savings and simplification of having a consistent scheme across all retailers. Provided SMEs are subject to a lower reporting burden, as in Wales, inclusion in the scheme is of zero cost to retailers and in fact reduces the costs incurred in providing bags free of charge; the exemptions may arguably therefore be placing SMEs at a competitive disadvantage.

Exemptions depending what you are buying – retailers also don’t have to charge for plastic bags for uncooked meat, poultry, fish and fish products, unwrapped food for animal or human consumption, loose fruit and vegetables, prescription medicines and a number of other less commonplace items.[vi] A bag can contain multiple items from the list and not incur a charge but if it contains other items not included on the list then a charge must be imposed. Although these exemptions are ostensibly for health and safety reasons, given that uncooked meat and fish products are wrapped at in-store counters, these additional exemptions appear unnecessary and will further confuse both retailers and customers.

What schemes are in place elsewhere?

Over 40 countries, as well as a number of cities and states, have implemented bans or levies on plastic bags[vii] and have been highly successful in reducing plastic bag consumption and encouraging reuse of carrier bags. Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales have all implemented 5p charges for single-use carrier bags. However, these schemes are more comprehensive than that in England, with the 5p charge applicable to all sizes of retailers and all types of single-use carrier bags (paper and plastic). In Northern Ireland and Wales, the charge has led to a reduction in carrier bag consumption of over 70 per cent.[viii] All EU member states now have to implement measures (e.g. bans or levies) in order to reduce consumption to 90 bags per person per year by 2019 (c. 50 per cent of average levels), followed by 40 bags (c. 80 per cent reduction) in 2025.

Is there a charge for biodegradable bags?

Although an exemption for biodegradable bags was initially proposed, it will not come into effect with the legislation in October 2015. The Government is working with industry to develop a standard for biodegradable bags.

In EIA’s view, exemptions for ‘biodegradable’ bags undermine the potential waste reduction benefits achieved by bans or levies. There are currently no products on the market which meet the essential criteria of quickly breaking down to harmless products in the marine and terrestrial environment. Bags currently marketed as compostable may be degradable in composting plants but are not designed to degrade in landfill or the marine environment. Moreover, many bags currently labelled as degradable are in fact based on oxo-degradable plastics, which break down into small plastic pieces and therefore would increase the source of microplastics to the marine environment.

Recyclers have warned that increasing the use of biodegradable plastics would threaten the viability of the UK recycling industry due to problems with waste separation and contamination.

Why does EIA believe that the charge should cover all types of single use bags?

Evidence shows that if some types of bags are exempt, retailers and customers can merely shift to using alternative single use types of bags, such as paper bags, rather than reusing bags.

Paper bags have a lower lifespan in the environment but require more energy to manufacture and transport than plastic bags and normally have limited reusability, resulting in an emissions impact around three times greater than that of plastic bags.[ix] Exempting paper bags from the charge weakens the message to reuse bags, perpetuates a single-use culture and diminishes the positive impact of a charge, lessening the potential reductions in waste generation and resource use. Retailers in England are concerned that if one company adopts free paper carrier bags the whole sector may be compelled to follow.[x]

Many people reuse their plastic bags at home, now they’ll have to buy them

A common public concern is that they often use plastic bags as bin liners and that the increase in sales of bin bags will negate the positive impact of a bag ban or levy. However, evidence from the Welsh charge demonstrates that there were only marginal increases in sales of bin bags, equating to just four per cent of the total amount of material saved through reductions achieved by the levy on single-use bags, with a huge net reduction in plastic bag consumption resulting from the charge.



[ii] MCS, 2013. Marine Plastics Position Paper; CPRE, 2012. Bag levy fact sheet.

[iii] ICC, 2011. Tracking Trash, 25 years of Action for the Ocean.

[iv] Wright et al. 2013. Microplastic ingestion decreases energy reserves in marine worms. Current Biology. 23(23): R1031-R1033; Lechner et al. (2014). The Danube so colourful: a potpourri of plastic litter outnumbers fish larvae in Europe’s second largest river. Environmental Pollution. 188: 177–81. DOI:10.1016/j.envpol.2014.02.006.

[v] Environmental Audit Committee report, 2014. Plastic bags. Eleventh report of session 2013-13.


[vii] Earth Policy Institute, 2014. The downfall of the plastic bag: A global picture.

[viii] BBC News, 2015. Plastic bag use down 71% since 5p charge was introduced:

[ix] Environment Agency, 2011. Life cycle assessment of supermarket carrier bags.

[x] Hill, 2013. Submission by Marks & Spencer to Defra call for evidence, December 2013.