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An Evaluation of The Plastic Bag Levy: Part 1

17th February 2017

The introduction of a levy on single-use plastic bags in retailers above a certain size in England in 2015 caused a significant level of media attention.  Public reaction to the policy has been broadly positive, and this two-part blog series explores what conclusions we can draw from the evidence available.

From the 5th October 2015, retailers in England became obliged to charge consumers five pence for single-use carrier bags in stores.  This brought England in line with the other nations within the UK; similar charges have been in place in Wales since October 2011, Northern Ireland since April 2013, and Scotland since October 2014. Although the 5p charge is quite small, the idea behind the policy was to reduce the volume of single-use plastic bags being given out in stores, and subsequently reaching landfill sites.  In addition to this, retailers are obliged to donate the proceeds of the levy to charitable causes.

Carrier Bag wastage

In 2014, over 7.6 billion single-use carrier bags were given to consumers in the seven main supermarkets in England, equating to approximately 61,000 tonnes of plastic. Although many of these bags may have been re-used, they have been identified as a key source of pollution within urban areas and are known to have detrimental effects upon marine wildlife.  Furthermore, some would advocate that plastic bags represent an unnecessary use of resources and are themselves a symptom of a throwaway culture.

In July 2016, the UK government published data on plastic bag sales in the six months following the introduction of the levy.  Attention is drawn to a large reduction in reported bag sales from the seven largest supermarkets in England, equating to an 84% reduction in single-use (less than 75 microns thick) carrier bag sales since 2014 (if the data is extended to a twelve month period). Tesco also released data, suggesting a 78% decrease in single-use carrier bag sales in the month following the introduction of the levy.

The full dataset released on the government website includes bags sold through retailers beyond the major supermarkets.  In all,  just over one billion single-use bags were issued by 285 registered retailers in England in this six month period, which, when scaled to a whole year, is significantly fewer than by the seven largest supermarkets only during 2014.  However, as there is no comparison data for all retailers, it is difficult to draw specific conclusions about sales of re-usable carrier bags outside the supermarket sector .

From this initial data , the levy can be considered to have had some successes.   It indicates that the levy has successfully resulted in fewer single-use plastic bags being sold to consumers through supermarkets.  In the supermarket context, the levy has accomplished one of its main aims.  However, the second part of this blog series will consider the limits of the available data and whether the successes advertised on the government website and through many media sources, are as significant as implied.



Government Data

Tesco Data