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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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