Single-use plastic bag sales down 95% since 5p charge brought in

The number of single-use plastic bags distributed by the big supermarkets in England has fallen more than 95% since a 5p charge was introduced in 2015, figures show.

Data from the Environment Department (Defra) shows the main retailers sold 226 million single-use bags in the past financial year, 322 million fewer than in 2018/19.

That is a drop of 59% in a year, with the average person now buying four bags on average, compared to 10 last year and 140 in 2014.

An estimated 7.6 billion bags a year were handed out by the leading supermarkets before the 5p charge was introduced in 2015.

Across all retailers of more than 250 employees who must apply the charge to their plastic bags and some small businesses who reported voluntarily, some 564 million bags were sold in the latest financial year, compared to 1.11 billion in 2018/19.

The Government has consulted on extending the charge to all businesses and increasing the minimum charge for single use bags to 10p, and says the response to the consultation will be published “in due course”.

Environment Secretary George Eustice said: “It is so encouraging to see in such a short space of time the huge difference our plastic carrier bag charge has had in reducing the amount of plastic we use in our everyday lives.

“We have all seen first-hand the devastating impact that plastic bags have on the environment, littering our beautiful countryside and threatening the world’s marine life.

“I am committed to driving this progress further and I hope this continues to inspire similar action across the globe.”

But environmental campaign group Greenpeace warned of rising sales of more expensive “bags for life”, that are supposed to be reused but which contain more plastic than the single use carrier bags do.

Sam Chetan Welsh, political campaigner at Greenpeace, said: “To deter people from using bags for life like throwaways, the Government should increase the cost of bags for life, which successfully led to decreased sales in the Republic of Ireland, or ideally should ban them.”

He called for reductions in plastic packaging across every aisle of the supermarket as well as at check-outs.

He added: “Whilst today’s figures are a step in the right direction, the Government shouldn’t congratulate itself too much until this hard work is done.”

Tom Fyans, campaigns and a policy director at CPRE, the countryside charity, said: “As one of the organisations that long campaigned for a carrier bag charge to be introduced, we are pleased to see it having the desired effect.

“But we can’t stop there. Our throwaway culture persists, with the litter newcomers of gloves and face masks adding to the waste that blights the countryside and harms wildlife.”

He called for charges on all single-use, throwaway items, incentivising reuse systems and for the Government to commit to an all-in deposit return scheme for drinks containers.

The data also reveals £9.2 million was donated to good causes in 2019/2020 from carrier sales, a figure which has fallen significantly as the amount of single-use bags bought has dwindled.