Paying for plastic: Has the plastic bag charge worked?

Hannah Cooper, Final Straw Foundation

We know plastic bags can cause havoc if they enter the marine environment. Often confused for food such as jellyfish or algae, plastic bags are ingested by countless marine creatures. This leaves them with stomachs full of plastic and, unable to ingest anything else with nutritious value, these creatures often die of starvation or malnutrition. In 2018, a pilot whale died in Thailand after ingesting 80 plastic bags. Unfortunately, this isn’t an isolated incident, and it doesn’t take a vast amount of plastic to do damage. A pygmy sperm whale died off the coast of New Jersey with just one plastic bag in its stomach. Plastic bags can also do damage if creatures become entangled in them, leaving them unable to swim, feed, or escape predation. In one case, a Kemp’s ridley sea turtle drowned after a plastic bag that had become filled with sand made its way around the turtle’s neck, weighing the turtle down and preventing it from surfacing to breathe. 

However, according to our government, long gone are the days of flimsy single-use plastic bags, splitting and spilling tins of beans and tangerines on the pavement outside the supermarket. In fact, according to, the amount of plastic bags used by consumers in the UK has dropped by a whopping 98% since the plastic bag charge was introduced in 2015. 

So, it’s amazing. We have reduced our plastic bag use, and we can all breathe a sigh of relief, right? Well… not exactly. Although the thin plastic bags that we dislike so much seem to be making their way out of circulation, their successor, the “bag for life” has filled the role that the government claims to have eliminated by 98%.  Bags for life, the more sturdy but just as harmful cousin of single-use plastic bags, have slowly replaced their flimsy alternative in most supermarkets, since 2015. This is where the statistics may become a bit tricky. In the government’s shiny new figures on plastic bag use in the UK, only the previously used “single-use” flimsy plastic bags were taken into consideration, and figures on bags for life were not included. When given this information, it now seems that the enormous shift away from single-use plastic bags was due to the consumer no longer being given the choice to purchase or use them, rather than a conscious effort by the British government and public to reduce the amount of plastic used. Not only this, but the figures on plastic bag use haven’t really changed as much as the government would like to portray. When you look at the figures for bags for life purchased, you can see that the numbers aren’t really dropping too much, at least not as drastically as the reporting would lead us to believe. In fact, the combined sales of bags for life in M&S, Co-op, and Waitrose supermarkets in the years 2018/19 was 58.8 million, only a 2% decrease from the year before. In total between 2017 and 2018, 958 million bags for life were sold in supermarkets across the UK. 

A full bin on Hayling Beach, with bags for life dumped next to it

Why is this a problem? In theory, bags for life are sturdier and last longer, so fewer will be used. But in fact, 44 bags for life are purchased per year per UK household, and their strong, sturdy nature can come as a downfall. Stronger, thicker plastics take longer to break down, so if they end up in the marine environment they can do damage for much longer than a conventional single-use plastic bag. Moreover, bags for life contain more plastic than a standard carrier bag, with a Waitrose bag for life weighing four times as much as its single-use counterpart. This suggests that any reduction in the amount of single-use plastic bags used is nullified by the increase of plastic used overall in their alternatives. Moreover, with still no kerbside recycling for soft plastics, the plastic bag for life will eventually meet the same fate as other single-use plastic bags – destined for a lifetime in landfill, littering our natural environment, or incinerated to produce greenhouse gases.  In short, the problem hasn’t gone away, it has just morphed into a new issue where we have potentially longer-lasting negative consequences for the environment. 

This does not mean that we are asking you to go back to single-use plastic bags, definitely not. We suggest that you ditch the plastic altogether – although, please use any plastic bags that you have already until they fall apart! After that? Fabric bags are stronger, longer-lasting and easier to repair or recycle than plastic bags, making them a great alternative.

If, like us, you think the government’s plastic bag charge is not up to scratch, maybe you’d like to set up, or contribute to, a borrow bag scheme in your area. This project, which has been running successfully in Emsworth, Hayling Island and Ringwood since the beginning of the year, reduces the amount of plastic bags used in an area, whilst salvaging fabric destined for landfill. This unwanted fabric is sewn into shopping bags by our fabulous volunteers and donated to shops. The shops can then give out these bags as an alternative to plastic bags. The result is a double-whammy – a reduction in plastic bags, and less fabric destined for our waste streams. The customer can either return the bag to any participating shop or keep it and reuse it time and time again as an alternative to plastic.

This project has already seen over 2000 borrow bags made and used, and 200 kgs of fabric diverted from landfill! If you are interested in any aspects of this project, whether it be setting up a scheme in your area, sewing bags, donating fabric or supplies, or stocking borrow bags in your shop, please do not hesitate to get in touch. You can submit your interest here. Alternatively, if you would like to make your own fabric bags, or borrow bags, you can find an easy-to-follow pattern here. We think this project is a fantastic way to reduce our reliance on plastic bags, whilst developing an important and impactful sense of community. No matter how dire the situation may seem regarding the impact of plastics on the environment, there is always something you can do to make a difference! 

Cover photo by Naja Bertolt Jensen on Unsplash

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