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Plastic Bag Sales Fell By 90% At England's Large Retailers In Past 4 Years

Major retailers report sharp drops in sales of single-use plastic bags, after a fee was instituted in 2015.
Henry Nicholls
Major retailers report sharp drops in sales of single-use plastic bags, after a fee was instituted in 2015.

England's largest retailers are now selling 90% fewer plastic bags than they did before a 5-pence plastic bag fee began in late 2015, the U.K. government says. In the past year alone, the retailers' sales fell by nearly half, from more than 1 billion bags to fewer than 550 million.

The statistics come from reports by the seven biggest retailers in England: Asda, Marks & Spencer, Morrisons, Sainsbury's, The Co-operative Group, Tesco and Waitrose.

"No one wants to see the devastating impact plastic waste is having on our precious wildlife," U.K. Environment Secretary Theresa Villiers said as her agency announced the figures.

The results, Villiers said, "are a powerful demonstration that we are collectively calling time on being a throwaway society."

England's single-use bag law requires large retailers — businesses with at least 250 employees — to charge customers the equivalent of around 6 cents to put their purchases in plastic bags. The policy is optional for smaller businesses.

The claim of a 90% reduction comes from comparing the 7.6 billion single-use bags that England's main retailers issued in 2014 — the last full year before the bag fee took effect — to the most recent number of 549 million.

That shift, the agency said, is equivalent to every person in England using 10 bags in the most recent year, compared with 140 bags in 2014.

Across all retailers, the number of plastic bag sales reported was 1.11 billion from April 2018 to April 2019. Just two years earlier, the figure was 2.12 billion, according to the government's tally.

Similar 5-pence charges are levied on shoppers in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. But, as the BBC notes, that minimum charge applies to all retailers.

Whether it's grocery bags or drinking straws, single-use plastics have become a frequent target for governments that want to reduce ocean waste and cut down plastic's presence in our food supply and drinking water.

One sure way to help ease the environmental impact of shopping bags is to reuse them, as University of Sydney economist Rebecca Taylor told NPR's Planet Money earlier this year. After studying the effects of plastic bag regulations, Taylor said she believes fees are more efficient in helping the environment than outright bans on plastic shopping bags — in part because bans force people who would normally reuse their bags for picking up dog waste or holding trash to instead buy heavier and bigger bags, like garbage bags.

"What I found was that sales of garbage bags actually skyrocketed after plastic grocery bags were banned," Taylor said earlier this year.

The proceeds from England's plastic bag fee don't go to the federal government. Instead, it's meant to go to charity. As the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs says, "We expect retailers to give the proceeds of the scheme to good causes, but it is for them to choose what to do, and which causes to support."

In its update released this week, the U.K. environmental agency says retailers have used the bag fee to contribute "around £169 million [about $200 million] toward charities and other good causes since the charge was introduced" in 2015.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.