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The 5p charge, 5 Years on
Amy Arfi
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October 2015 was a pivotal month for sustainable change in the UK, due to the government’s promising increase in attention towards serious environmental policies. There’s a first for everything and this month marked the beginning of a new era committed to tackling our waste production, and most specifically, single-use plastic.

The war on plastic bags began.

Before these new laws were put into place, upon every weekly visit to a supermarket, express store and high street shop, we had taken for granted what we deemed in this country a common courtesy: a free trusty plastic bag. Instead, putting a five pence charge on single-use carriers was the new initiative, and one the government hoped would steer the direction of our future battling climate change. It was also the first time many of us had been personally challenged by the government’s decision to take environmental action, encouraging us to recycle daily. Before the charge, the average person was using 128 bags a year, amounting to a frightening sum of 1 trillion plastic carriers being used every 12 months. We quickly learnt that a bag was not just a one-off throw away, but for life.

Yet we are keen to know, five years on since the initiation began, are we making any dents to that pre-existing mass of plastic sitting in landfill, or are we just slowing down the rate of adding to it? Are we really any better off for the charge, or have we just climatized to the new normal, willingly accepting the bag fees when we shop?

Next year from April 2021, the government is upping the stakes and doubling the charge to 10p per bag. However, UK supermarket giant Sainsbury’s has taken it a step further committing to a 20p charge instead, which has reportedly made shoppers furious. Sainsbury’s put this down to an effort to reduce its plastic footprint and encourage customers to get into the habit of reusing their bags. With such commitment from both them and parliament to make a difference in the long-term, it begs the question: has the 5p charge made any difference at all? 

In short, the answer is yes. Every year since the law came into fruition in 2015, the government has released a single-use plastic carrier charge report, taken from the data accumulated by supermarkets reporting their daily bag sales. The reports show there was an immediate effect. In the first year and a half alone, plastic bag sales were down 83% - that’s six million fewer plastic bags sold. It’s also worth noting that over half of these sales were from major food retailers Marks & Spencer, Tesco, Asda, Morrison’s, Sainsbury’s and Waitrose. And it wasn’t just us making moves on this side of the pond either. By mid-2018, over 127 countries had also enforced policies limiting the use of single-use plastic bags. It became a global effort to save our planet and decrease landfill waste and ocean pollution. The same year Prime Minister Theresa May also released the UK’s 25-year Environmental Plan, setting out the government strategy to a better, greener, future promised by politicians. The plan came off the back of the plastic bag charge, which was very heavily deemed a success in the report, and in many ways, is one.

So, what’s the problem? Upon evaluation of what makes up most of the toxic waste that litters our seas and kills our wildlife, plastic bags were not the biggest threat. However, plastic in its entirety is, including items such as straws, cotton buds, sacks and wrapping to name just a few. If the war on plastic is going to achieve anything, the same attitudes and actions will have to be made to other single-use plastic accessories that infiltrate our daily lives and not just bags. Excess packaging, unnecessary food containers and wrapping are areas that need to be tackled if the plastic bag charge is ever going to make irreversible changes. 

The annual report on supermarket bag sales does indicate that the law reduced purchases of plastic carriers, yet our next default alternative to carrying our groceries might not be the most sustainable either. Switching to bags made from other materials than plastic may seem wise, but often they require more energy to produce and have larger carbon footprints. A safe option would appear to be a paper bag; it’s easily recyclable. But the issue is the production taking place before the bag gets to your checkout and its cost to the climate. Paper bags take 400% more energy to make than a plastic bag, not forgetting the tree harvesting knock-on effect and harmful chemicals involved. Similarly cotton, another popular alternative, takes an enormous amount of energy to grow and cultivate into a reusable bag. Where the cons of plastic means bags are destined to end up in land pollution forever, they require less energy, therefore having a lower effect on climate change. 

Even biodegradable bags toxify soil and pollute water. There seems to be no current solution and thus, a lesser of two evils approach is taken leaving plastic bags higher in the pecking order than you’d initially believe. 

It might even be argued that the bigger crisis is the lie we are telling ourselves by believing we are choosing eco-friendly alternatives on the surface, but failing to dig deeper to double-check the payoffs. 

Knowing where to go from here can seem a bit hopeless when there isn't a clear cut solution to take for a guilt-free shopping trip. However, the same messages still continue to hit home. Opting for a more sustainable alternative is never a bad idea, whether that be using your cotton tote or reusing that plastic bag multiple times. The best advice is simple. The greatest bag to choose is the one you’ve already got. Go home, have a rummage and count your bags (and your blessings), then will to use them with the aim of making no additions. Every use reduces the environmental impact you make by purchasing another and if everybody takes note, we are on to a winning path.

For sustainable brands that you can rely on in the bid for a better future, check out bursting with re-usable bags and replacements for those plastic ridden household items .

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