Shoppers in England now far more likely to use their own bags

Study finds a rise in the number of people carrying their own bags since the introduction of a 5p charge on plastic bags nearly a year ago
Adam Vaughan The Guardian 29 Sep 16;

Shoppers in England have become much more likely to take their own bags to the high street since the introduction of a plastic bag charge nearly a year ago, a study has found.

More than nine in 10 people now often or always carry their own bags, up from seven in 10 before the 5p charge came into effect, and the public became much more supportive after it started. The number of plastic bags taken from supermarkets and big retailers in England has fallen by 85%.

The authors of the Cardiff University study said that the charge’s success suggested a charge on takeway coffee cups, an idea backed by campaigner and chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and former environment minister George Eustice, could be successfully brought in too.

Support for the England bag charge went from five in 10 people to six in 10 after the 5p fee came into effect, and the number of shoppers sceptical that the charge would go to charity dropped significantly after its introduction. The charge had raised £29m for good causes by July.

“One thing that stood out to me was the effects were universal, there weren’t age, gender or income effects,” said lead author Prof Wouter Poortinga. “Everyone changed their behaviour and everyone increased their support for the charge. I think that is important.”

The research also revealed that the charge gave people in England an increased environmental awareness, and greater willingness to accept other waste policies too, such as a 5p charge on plastic bottles.

But Poortinga conceded that while the bag scheme’s success showed a coffee cup charge could work, that shift would likely be trickier. “It’s not exactly the same. It’s easier to adapt to a bag charge by bringing your own bag than by bringing your own cup. You have to find ways around the hassle factor,” he said.

The government has ruled out a coffee cup “tax”, though pressure for an end to the throwaway culture continued on Thursday with the launch of a ‘cupifesto’ by 140 environmental and social NGOs who said takeaway cups harm forests.

While single-use bag use has plummeted in England – as in Wales and Scotland who brought in charges earlier – the study found some evidence that people were building up bag for life mountains at home.

“We asked people to estimate how many bags for life they have at home: in England it went from 6.5 to nine [after the charge]. In Wales it’s around 11. People are buying more bags for life than they really need. It seems it is accumulating a little bit,” said Poortinga.

The study suggests the government should do away with the exemptions in the England scheme, which excludes small retailers. The study’s survey found a majority of participants backed a blanket charge across England, Scotland and Wales, which Poortinga said would be much more straightforward.

The research involved a nationally representative survey with Ipsos Mori of people before, just after and six months after the England charge, as well as diaries and interviews, and observations of shoppers at four supermarkets.

Respondents in their diaries said they found the scheme easy to adapt to, despite predictions of “chaos” from some newspapers on its introduction.

“It [the bag charge] makes people think about what they’re doing, and stops them from being lazy. It makes people think ahead and plan, and not just take things for granted,” wrote one woman in England shortly after the charge. Another said: “I really think that along with carrier bags, the issue of other plastic going to waste should be looked at.”

A spokesman for the environment department said: “These latest figures show that this great progress is the result of a real change in our behaviour - many more of us now stop, think and take a bag with us before heading out to the shops.”

Efforts to cut plastic waste received another boost on Wednesday, when Lidl said it would remove single-use plastic bags from all its stores across England, Scotland and Wales by the start of July next year. The supermarket said it was making the move because of its commitment to “reduce unnecessary plastic waste” and estimated the change would save 63m bags annually.

Six billion plastic bags can’t be wrong – so what do we tax next?
In the first six months of the 5p charge in England, 6bn fewer bags were handed out. Watch out coffee cups and plastic bottles
Patrick Barkham The Guardian 2 Oct 16;

Once, my family’s kitchen cupboard would have contained dozens of plastic bags. But today – a year after the introduction of England’s 5p plastic bag charge – I count just six (three secondhand ones, given to us by other people, one corner-shop bag and two small bags supplied with meat and fish).

England’s plastic bag charge was a long time coming – long after Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales – and critics predicted its exemptions for small stores and paper bags would diminish its effectiveness. A year ago, Andy Cummins, campaigns director of Surfers Against Sewage, predicted that England’s charge would reduce use of plastic bags, but not as effectively as in Scotland, Wales (down 78%) and Northern Ireland (down 81%).

In fact, in the first six months of the charge, the number of single-use plastic bags handed out by the seven biggest supermarkets fell by more than 85% from 7.6bn a year in 2014 to 600m. In that period, the levy raised more than £29m for charities and community groups. A study by Cardiff University found that more than nine out of 10 people often or always carry their own bags, up from seven out of 10 before the 5p charge came into effect.

Six billion fewer plastic bags in six months: Cummins is happy to be proved half-wrong. “It’s a fantastic success,” he says. “The vast majority have adapted their behaviour without a check in their stride. There will be a phenomenal net benefit for the environment from 6bn fewer bags.”

The Marine Conservation Society undertook its annual beach clean in September. Laura Foster, head of pollution, says that volunteers aren’t seeing plastic bags on the beach any more. “There is strong anecdotal evidence to suggest a decline in plastic bags in our marine environment,” she says.

Single-use plastic bags may not be being discarded in their previous numbers, but there are reservations about their replacements. Bags for life and, in particular, cotton bags require much more energy – and carbon emissions – to produce. A study by the Environment Agency found a “resource expenditure” of just 2kg of carbon per plastic bag: a paper bag would need to be used seven times to achieve the same per-use expenditure; a cotton bag would need to be used 327 times.

Supreme Creations, which claims to be the world’s largest ethical packaging company, reports a 20% increase in sales of its reusable carrier bags since the levy was introduced in England. So, are we now creating reusable bag mountains? My family’s reusable bag stash currently stands at 15, but these include a cotton bag from the Devon town of Modbury, which I picked up in 2007 when I wrote about it being the first place in Europe to ban plastic bags. That has definitely had more than 300 uses, and so have our three large Ikea bags, which I take to the supermarket each week.

Surfers Against Sewage, Keep Britain Tidy and the Marine Conservation Society all say that there are no problems with reusable bags being littered on land or sea. “Because people pay for them, they value them and there is no tossing them away,” says Foster. What about the free ones? “Even if you get them for free, you hoard them,” says Cummins. “You need every bag you can get if your shopping is anything like mine.”

For analysts such as David Powell of the New Economics Foundation, the unequivocal success of the plastic bag charge shows that the government shouldn’t be afraid of using financial “nudges” in new environmental regulations. Who would imagine that a 5p charge changes human behaviour so decisively?

“By far the most interesting thing about the plastic bag charge is just how successful an incredibly small charge can be,” says Powell. “Introduce the right charge in the right way and people respond to it, particularly if there’s such an obvious environmental problem. The government will have to conclude, how can we use this principle for other things?”

The Cardiff University survey also reveals that the charge has made people in England more willing to accept regulations to reduce plastic waste, such as a 5p charge on plastic bottles. Plastic bags may have been litter’s poster child, but they amounted to just 2% of beach rubbish. Powell suggests a charge on coffee cups is an obvious next step. “There are massive piles of unrecycled coffee cups everywhere. It’s an obvious problem that people are keen to do something about.”

While the plastic-bag charge was about changing consumer behaviour, announcing a charge on coffee cups to apply at a future date would give the industry an incentive to innovate and find alternatives, rather like the sugar tax, which will apply from 2017.

Both Keep Britain Tidy and Surfers Against Sewage would like to see the government close the loopholes in England’s current plastic bag charge so that paper bags incur a charge, too, and small shops are no longer exempt (the Association of Convenience Stores wanted to be included in the charging system from the outset). However, a Defra spokesperson says there are currently no plans to extend the regulations.

“We walk into meetings with Defra where the position is: ‘The government doesn’t want new regulations.’ Unfortunately, that’s the default position,” says Cummins. He thinks the next example of a win-win regulation that would benefit consumers, industry and the environment is a deposit-return system for drinks bottles. Such systems are used in dozens of European countries from Germany to Croatia, and in Australian and American states, too.

Reverse vending machines that give people, say, 20p for their plastic and glass bottles and aluminium cans deliver recycling rates of up to 90%, provide high-grade recyclable materials for industry, and save councils’ doorstep recycling and rubbish bin costs, argues Cummins. If placed on shop floors, they also encourage footfall; it’s not hard to imagine kids collecting bottles and quickly spending their earnings in the shops.

“We all know that litter breeds litter,” says Cummins. “If you can take these really visible litter items out of the environment with a successful deposit-return system, it will have a knock-on effect and everyone will treat their environment better.”