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Plastic Bag Purchases Drop 90% at Major England Retailers After Bag Fee Is Introduced

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Shoppers push shopping carts towards a Sainsbury's supermarket on April 29, 2018 in London, England. Chris J Ratcliffe / Getty Images

Charging grocery shoppers a small fee for plastic bags works.


At least that's what the UK government has found. Since it introduced a five-pence fee for plastic shopping bags in 2015, plastic bag sales at England's seven biggest retailers have fallen 90 percent, NPR reported.

"No one wants to see the devastating impact plastic waste is having on our precious wildlife," UK Environment Secretary Theresa Villiers said as her agency released the findings Wednesday. "Today's figures are a powerful demonstration that we are collectively calling time on being a throwaway society."

The data comes from Asda, Marks and Spencer, Morrisons, Sainsbury's, The Co-operative Group, Tesco and Waitrose. Together, the seven stores sold about half as many bags during 2018 - 2019 as they did the year before, a drop from one billion to 549 million, according to BBC News. Across all major English stores, bag sales fell by 37 percent between this year and last, The Guardian reported.

English shoppers now use 10 bags a year on average, a far cry from the 140 bags they used in 2014, the year before the fee was introduced. The 2015 law required stores with 250 or more employees to charge customers the equivalent of around 6 U.S. cents per plastic bag, NPR explained. Smaller stores can opt in if they choose. Similar bag fees in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales apply to all stores regardless of size, BBC News said.

Maddy Haughton-Boakes of the Campaign to Protect Rural England celebrated the news, but said England could go further.

"The continued reduction in plastic bag use in our supermarkets is yet more evidence of the huge impact that a small financial incentive can have," Haughton-Boakes said, as The Guardian reported. "Theresa Villiers must now build on this success by rolling it out to all small shops. There is absolutely no reason the charge shouldn't be applied to all bags, paper as well as plastic, to bring an end to the use of these single-use items altogether."

Bag fees like the UK's tend to be better for the environment than outright bans, University of Sydney economist Rebecca Taylor told NPR earlier this year. That's because bans force people who reuse plastic grocery bags for trash to go out and buy heavier bags.

"What I found was that sales of garbage bags actually skyrocketed after plastic grocery bags were banned," Taylor said.

The bag fee is only one of several actions taken by the UK government in recent years to reduce plastic pollution. A ban on products using microbeads came into force in 2018 and another on single-use plastics like straws and stirrers was announced for England in May. It will go into force in 2020.

Approximately eight million metric tons of plastic enter the world's oceans each year, and the amount of ocean plastic will increase threefold in the next ten years if nothing is done, according to UK government scientists. Current levels of plastic pollution kill one million birds and more than 100,000 marine mammals annually.

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A volcano erupts on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island on Dec. 9, 2019. Michael Schade / Twitter

A powerful volcano on Monday rocked an uninhabited island frequented by tourists about 30 miles off New Zealand's coast. Authorities have confirmed that five people died. They expect that number to rise as some are missing and police officials issued a statement that flights around the islands revealed "no signs of life had been seen at any point,", as The Guardian reported.

"Based on the information we have, we do not believe there are any survivors on the island," the police said in their official statement. "Police is working urgently to confirm the exact number of those who have died, further to the five confirmed deceased already."

The eruption happened on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island, an islet jutting out of the Bay of Plenty, off the country's North Island. The island is privately owned and is typically visited for day-trips by thousands of tourists every year, according to The New York Times.

Michael Schade / Twitter

At the time of the eruption on Monday, about 50 passengers from the Ovation of Seas were on the island, including more than 30 who were part of a Royal Caribbean cruise trip, according to CNN. Twenty-three people, including the five dead, were evacuated from the island.

The eruption occurred at 2:11 pm local time on Monday, as footage from a crater camera owned and operated by GeoNet, New Zealand's geological hazards agency, shows. The camera also shows dozens of people walking near the rim as white smoke billows just before the eruption, according to Reuters.

Police were unable to reach the island because searing white ash posed imminent danger to rescue workers, said John Tims, New Zealand's deputy police commissioner, as he stood next to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in a press conference, as The New York Times reported. Tims said rescue workers would assess the safety of approaching the island on Tuesday morning. "We know the urgency to go back to the island," he told reporters.

"The physical environment is unsafe for us to return to the island," Tims added, as CNN reported. "It's important that we consider the health and safety of rescuers, so we're taking advice from experts going forward."

Authorities have had no communication with anyone on the island. They are frantically working to identify how many people remain and who they are, according to CNN.

Geologists said the eruption is not unexpected and some questioned why the island is open to tourism.

"The volcano has been restless for a few weeks, resulting in the raising of the alert level, so that this eruption is not really a surprise," said Bill McGuire, emeritus professor of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London, as The Guardian reported.

"White Island has been a disaster waiting to happen for many years," said Raymond Cas, emeritus professor at Monash University's school of earth, atmosphere and environment, as The Guardian reported. "Having visited it twice, I have always felt that it was too dangerous to allow the daily tour groups that visit the uninhabited island volcano by boat and helicopter."

The prime minister arrived Monday night in Whakatane, the town closest to the eruption, where day boats visiting the island are docked. Whakatane has a large Maori population.

Ardern met with local council leaders on Monday. She is scheduled to meet with search and rescue teams and will speak to the media at 7 a.m. local time (1 p.m. EST), after drones survey the island, as CNN reported.