In brief

For many years, environmental campaigners in the UK had been lobbying for a charge on plastic shopping bags, which they saw as posing a threat to wildlife and the ecosystem. The governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland agreed and introduced charges, with England eventually following their lead in 2015. The policy has received the support of consumers and retailers alike, and is now a widely accepted piece of legislation.

The challenge

Campaigners have long argued that discarded plastic shopping bags are a blight on streets, the countryside, wildlife, seas and coastline, and that the production process is environmentally unsound. “Ministers are said to be concerned at the environmental impact of the bags, particularly on waterborne animals". [1]

Figures published by the waste-reduction body Wrap in 2015, on behalf of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), showed that the figure was increasing again after a decline from the 2006 figures. In 2015, “data published by WRAP showed that 8.5 billion thin-gauge (single-use) bags were used in 2014 by customers of UK supermarkets. This represented an increase of 2.3% compared with 2013 (8.3 billion), and a decrease of 30% compared with 2006 (12.2 billion), when reporting began.

The initiative

The government introduced the Single Use Carrier Bags Charges (England) Order 2015 No. 776, a statutory instrument that came into force on 5 October 2015, for which the primary legislation was the Climate Change Act 2008. In s3 of the Order, the obligation on retailers was set out: “a seller must charge a minimum of 5 pence (including any VAT) for each SUCB supplied in a reporting year — (a) at the place in England where the goods are sold, for the purpose of enabling the goods to be taken away; or (b) for the purpose of enabling the goods to be delivered to persons in England”. [2] The charge applies only to shops or chains with 250 or more full-time employees.

The aim of the legislation was to reduce plastic bag usage by 80 percent in supermarkets and by 50 percent on the high street. It was predicted to save GBP60m savings in litter clean-up costs and GBP13m in carbon savings. The money raised as a result the order would not go to the government and retailers could choose what to do with the proceeds of the charge, although they were expected to donate it to sound charitable causes.

The public impact

In the first six months of the legislation, bag usage had “slumped by around 80% and remains static. The UK’s largest retailer Tesco said in December that the number of bags had been slashed by 78% since the charge was introduced, while at Morrisons, plastic bag consumption was down 80% across its stores”. [3] The government estimates that, by 2025, it will have resulted in GBP730 million in retailers’ charitable donations.

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What did and didn't work

All cases in our Public Impact Observatory have been evaluated for performance against the elements of our Public Impact Fundamentals.

Legitimacy

Stakeholder Engagement Strong

The major stakeholders are the government, the large retailers (of more than 250 employees) who now must charge 5p for a plastic bag, consumers who either pay for bags or use their own means, and the environmental NGOs that campaigned for the new law as part of the group, Break the Bag Habit. The group included the Campaign to Protect Rural England and the environmental charity, Friends of the Earth, which welcomed the charge when it came, but said more needed to be done.

Furthermore it was reported that major retailers responded with 'enthusiasm' towards the initiative. The main supermarkets have supported the introduction of the plastic bag charge. They have implemented cooperative approaches to help customers such as ‘bags for life’ and offering 'bagless' delivery services.

Consumers have been largely supportive of the change and cooperated with retailers in choosing how to dispose of the money raised: “so far Tesco’s Bags of Help scheme alone has attracted 8m votes from shoppers for local environmental projects that will benefit from the largest single injection of funding in the UK - more than £20m in the first year”. [4]

Political Commitment Good

The scheme was initially proposed by the Liberal Democrat deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, during the Conservative - Liberal Democrat coalition government. “Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg … unveiled the plans at the Liberal Democrat party conference this weekend". [5] It was claimed that they faced some opposition from the Conservative Party in England, but overall the initiative was government-led.

The initiative was enacted through a statutory instrument, the Single Use Carrier Bags Charges (England) Order 2015 (see The Initiative above).

Public Confidence Good

Market research undertaken before the charge was implemented found that around two-thirds of respondents supported the charge. “A survey of more than 2,000 people, commissioned by Break the Bag Habit coalition – which includes the Campaign to Protect Rural England and Keep Britain Tidy among others – found that 62% of people in England agreed a 5p charge was ‘reasonable’". [6]

However some members of the public remain critical, arguing "the charge was an unnecessary measure that would have little impact on overall waste."

Policy

Clear Objectives Strong

The objectives were relatively simple and clearly defined: to reduce the use of single-use plastic carrier bags, by charging for them. The government stated that, as a result of the change in the law, “we expect to see a significant reduction in the use of single-use plastic carrier bags as a direct result of the charge - by as much as 80% in supermarkets and 50% on the high street”. [7]

Evidence Strong

Many other countries have introduced a plastic bag charge, resulting in a drastic reduction in the use of plastic bags. England was relatively late to introduce the charge, after the other countries in the UK. “In 2011, Wales started charging 5p per bag and saw a 71% drop in the number used by customers. Scotland and Northern Ireland introduced their charges in 2014 and 2013 respectively and have also seen significant drops in usage". [8]

Ireland introduced a charge of €0.15 in March 2002: “it had an immediate effect on consumer behaviour with a decrease in plastic bag usage from an estimated 328 bags per capita to 21 bags per capita”. [9] The Irish government increased the charge to €0.15 in July 2007. Usage has now  fallen further, to an estimated 14 bags per capita in 2014.

In 2002, Bangladesh became the first country in the world to ban thinner plastic bags altogether, after they were found to have choked local drainage systems during floods. Other countries including South Africa, Rwanda, Kenya, China, and Italy followed suit.

Feasibility Strong

As other countries had pioneered the initiative before the UK, and the three other countries in the UK had introduced it before England, it was thought to be highly feasible, with no real challenges.

However, opinion surveys were also undertaken in order assess the views of consumers and their likely response. For, example Wrap undertook a survey on behalf of the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) in February 2014. It found that “Almost three-fifths of respondents  ... supported a proposed 5p charge on plastic carrier bags. Encouraging bag re-use and use of bags for life are seen by respondents as the key potential behavioural impacts of the charge. The perceived environmental benefit of the charge ... was the benefit that the research found had most traction with the public”. [10]

Action

Management Good

The initiative was government-led. Defra thoroughly researched the scheme before the charge was initiated through environmental legislation.

Defra is also responsible for administering the record-keeping (see Measurement below).

Local authorities are responsible for enforcing the legislation, with the obligation being on the retailer to comply with the charge.

Measurement Strong

Large retailers must record for the whole reporting year: “the number of single-use carrier bags you supplied; the gross and net proceeds of the charge; any VAT in the gross proceeds; what you did with the proceeds from the charge; and any reasonable costs and how they break down”. They then supply the information to Defra a dedicated reporting website. Defra is responsible for maintaining the records based on this data.

This data enables the government to monitor the success of the scheme.

Alignment Strong

There is a shared environmental interest among all the major stakeholders: government, principally Defra, the environmental NGOs, consumers and retailers. Before the charge was mandatory, some major retailers already implemented their own plastic bag charge independently, highlighting how environmental concerns are aligned amongst both the retailers and the government. For example, Marks & Spencer had charged for plastic bags since 2008.

The charge does not go to the government, as it is not a tax, and the retailers are encouraged to donate profits to charity. This increases the sense of cooperation between the consumers and retailers (see also Stakeholder engagement above). Furthermore, the majority of the general public considered the charge to be a good idea before its introduction, and those numbers are likely to have increased.