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Carrier bag charge: what impact has it had?

PUBLISHED: 09:48 28 March 2017

The 5p bag charge has cut requests for plastic bags from more than 7bn to around 1bn a year in the UK

The 5p bag charge has cut requests for plastic bags from more than 7bn to around 1bn a year in the UK

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The impact of the carrier bags charge on environmental waste has shown how change is possible, and can be dramatic, with a small change in mindset. Liz Hamilton of the Herts Campaign to Protect Rural England looks at the results and where it could lead

In October 2015 the 5p charge for single-use plastic bags at major retailers become compulsory in England – the culmination of a three-year campaign spearheaded by the Break the Bag Habit coalition, with Campaign to Protect Rural England a major partner.

The government announced last year that the number of these bags issued annually in England was predicted to fall from 7.6bn to around 1bn, based on figures supplied by retailers for the first six months of the charge.

Further good news came last September when the Marine Conservation Society ran its annual Great British Beach Clean. It found the number of plastic bags in rubbish collected was almost half that of the preceding year, a result attributed to the bag charge. The 5p cost also raised nearly £30m for charities in its first six months.

This is good news for Hertfordshire. Fewer plastic bags are likely to end up as litter disfiguring our county. Litter becomes especially apparent at this time of year, when last year’s vegetation on road verges and in other places dies down. It has been estimated that £1bn is spent annually in England by local authorities to clear up litter, and that’s after countless volunteers in groups all over the country have contributed to keeping their local areas litter-free.

Research by Cardiff University following the introduction of the bag charge found that 90 per cent of people in England now take their own bags with them when food shopping. This is a change in behaviour that critics of the proposals said would not happen. Encouraged by this finding, CPRE is campaigning to reduce plastic bottle waste. You may have seen CPRE’s national president Emma Bridgewater standing in front of an enormous pile of waste plastic bottles on breakfast television last autumn.

Every day an estimated 38.5m plastic bottles are used in the UK. They are a particular problem because they take a very long time to biodegrade. CPRE is calling for a deposit return scheme, to achieve better recycling rates and reduce litter.

Plastic bottles together with drinks cans account for around 40 per cent by volume of all litter found in the environment. Recent research in the USA found that in states that have introduced a deposit return scheme, drinks container litter has been reduced by between 70-85 per cent, and overall litter by nearly 50 per cent in some cases. Other countries have successful bottle deposit return schemes, including Germany where 95 per cent of its bottles are recycled. In the 10 other European countries with schemes, recycling rates often exceed 90 per cent. So let’s do the same in England and start recovering the 10 billion plastic bottles we throw away every year.

The system is straight-forward. A small addition to the price of a bottle (10-15p for a small size) is charged by the retailer and returned to whoever places the bottle in a ‘reverse vending machine’. Anyone can pick up and return a discarded bottle, so the scheme could become a fundraiser for community organisations. In the Australian state of New South Wales RVMs for used drinks containers are due to be introduced later this year. Previously put in the ‘too hard department’ by the state’s government, they are projected to raise significant funds for action groups.

Bearing in mind that nearly all of us now take our own bags when we go food shopping, a further step would be to adopt refillable water bottles and coffee cups, and even takeaway food containers. Then we might really see an end to the litter that spoils our countryside and towns.

Keep Britain Tidy estimates that at least two million pieces of litter are dropped every day in the UK. Local authorities have extensive powers to tackle litter, and in addition, many people feel motivated to help clean up their neighbourhoods.

The Great British Spring Clean, which takes place on the weekend of March 3-5, and continues throughout the month, aims to involve 500,000 people in cleaning up the area they live in. If you feel inspired to take part, and make a difference to Hertfordshire’s environment, full details are available at greatbritishspringclean.org.uk or follow #GB SpringClean on Twitter.

Visit cpreherts.org.uk to find out how CPRE works to protect our county’s countryside.

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