PLASTIC BAGS CONTINUE TO POLLUTE OUR PLANET. MAKE YOUR VOICE HEARD BY SIGNING TO SUPPORT A BAN ON PLASTIC BAGS AND MORE TRANSPARENT REPORTING FROM RETAILERS
In 2019, 2.1 BILLION plastic bags were sold in the UK. That’s nearly 6 million bags every day.
1.6 BILLION of these – over half – were bags for life. These contain up to three times as much plastic as traditional single-use bags and. Unlike single use bags, the charges on bags for life are not expected to be donated to good causes and retailers are not required to formally report sales. This loophole has the potential to create an additional revenue stream for retailers and VAT from sales benefits government.
We don’t just want to see a ban. We’re also calling for fully transparent reporting from government and retailers on the volume of ALL plastic bags sold and how the proceeds are being used and closed loop solutions that encourage reuse.
Add your name below to show your support of a ban on plastic bags and that you demand action from Government and retailers.
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The 5p single-use plastic bag levy that the government introduced in 2015 has been less effective than the Government led us to believe. Although it is claimed that the charge has led to a drop in traditional single-use carrier bags, reports on it’s success are misleading:
The current legislation also allows for supermarket retailers to profit from the sales of ‘Bags for Life’, while members of the public maintain the false understanding that the proceeds from plastic bag charges are being donated to charitable causes.
The problem on plastic bag waste has not been fixed. We’ve written a letter to the Secretary of State for the Environment, George Eustice, signed by Lizzie Carr, Planet Patrol Founder and 45+ parliamentarians, public figures, academics and activists including Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Fearne Cotton, Laura Whimore, Bonnie Wright, Thandiwe Newton, Livia Firth MBE, Professor Jamie Woodward, Professor Brendan Godley & many more, calling for a ban on plastic bags and for large retailers to publish figures across all plastic bag sales, including Bags For Life.
The Big Bag Ban campaign is Planet Patrol’s response to the inadequate reporting and, consequently, misleading statements about the success of the 5p bag charge.
It’s likely that the 5p plastic bag charge has caused the rise of bags for life from the data we have available, replacing the traditional single use version with a more plastic-heavy alternative. Reports claim that the 5p bag charge, introduced in England in 2015, has resulted in a 95% decrease in plastic bag sales. However, this statistic is misleading as it only refers to traditional single-use bags (70 microns thick or less) being issued by retailers with at least 250 members of staff (as small-to-medium enterprises (SMEs) are exempt), as covered by the legislation. It fails to mention the increasing number of bags for life sold each year. One major supermarket reported an almost tenfold increase in bag for life sales, from 3.5 million in 2018 to 34 million in 2019, while single-use plastic bag sales fell from 61 million to 14.3 million over the same period.
We want to hold government and retailers to account and work with them to implement closed-loop solutions that help eradicate the impact of single-use plastic bags in nature.
The current plastic bag charge was introduced in 2015 (in England) to reduce unnecessary and excessive use of plastic bags. It applied to all retailers with 250 or more full-time staff, requiring them to charge 5p for each single-use plastic bag sold. A charge is also effective in Wales (since a2011), Northern Ireland (since 2013) and Scotland (since 2014), however it applies to all enterprises in these countries, including SMEs.
The current charge has done little to encourage reuse or responsible disposal of plastic bags and, instead, resulted in a shift to using harmful alternatives (e.g. Bags for Life) without any significant change in our behaviour or wasteful single-use culture.
Since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, many supermarkets temporarily changed their policy to stop bagless deliveries, adding to the excess of plastic bags that already exist.
To tackle the issue, the UK government announced plans to amend the legislation for the 5p charge, to increase the minimum cost of single-use plastic bags to 10p and to make all retailers subject to the charge (by removing the exemption of small-to-medium sized enterprises). This came into effect in Scotland on 1st April 2021 and was set to be introduced in England and Wales on 30th April, however, just days before, Defra announced this has been delayed. While we don’t feel a 5p increase will make any real difference to the millions of plastic bags being sold each month, this delay demonstrates yet again the lack of urgency and prioritisation of environmental policies.
We’re calling for a ban on all plastic bags sold in supermarkets and other retailers, including both single-use plastic bags and bags for life.
We encourage reuse wherever possible as, in terms of the waste management hierarchy, this is the most effective way of reducing waste and limiting the resources we use. However, we understand there may be nuances and exceptions that can be explored for those instances where reuse is not a practical option and we welcome insights into this.
For example, we’re seeing more retailers introduce compostable plastic bags for their in-store customers. However, it’s important to make clear the difference between industrially-compostable bags and those which are home-compostable. The latter are able to break down fully in a residual setting compared to industrially-compostable bags, which can only break down in specific conditions based on temperature, oxygen levels and availability of sunlight. There are currently limited industrial composting facilities in the UK, so big changes would need to be made to the current infrastructure to handle a shift towards industrially-compostable plastic bags. Therefore, if we’re going to introduce compostable bags as an alternative to the plastic bags we currently use, these need to be home-compostable – like those sold by Co-Op and provided by Waitrose as fruit and vegetable bags – rather than industrially-compostable bags.
So, ideally, reusable bags will be used whenever possible; however, home-compostable bags are a good alternative in instances where reuse is not an option.
There are two different types of plastic bags commonly referred to as bags for life: the thicker, woven bags for life (made from strips of polypropylene woven together) and the thinner, lighter bags for life (made from low-density polyethylene).
Our research shows that the thinner bags for life are often used as a direct swap for single-use carrier bags, despite having been introduced as a reusable alternative. Seven of the UK’s top 10 supermarket retailers have now stopped selling 5p bags in-store, so shoppers who forget to bring a bag are left to buy either a bag for life or another, more expensive bag, as their only options.
As a result, the number of bags for life being issued by those retailers who publish these numbers has risen massively since the 5p charge came into effect. One retailer’s bag for life sales saw a 871% increase from 2018 to 2019, from 3.5 million to 34 million in just one year. According to Defra’s annual reporting on plastic bag sales, another retailer saw a difference from 3.75 million in 2016-17 to 106.5 million in 2019-20, representing a 2,740% increase in bag for life sales over the 4-year period.
However, the true scale of the problem is not yet clear, as we don’t have access to the full picture. This is why one of our demands in the Big Bag Ban is transparent reporting by retailers. Only 2 major retailers within the top 10 have been transparent over the last 4 years by reporting the number of bags for life sold. Iceland and Tesco’s bag for life sales numbers feature in a series of annual reports by Greenpeace and the Environmental Investigation Agency; however, these only account for sales in 2018 and 2019. That leaves six of the UK’s top 10 retailers who have omitted to report any numbers of bags for life sold over the last 4 years, and two retailers who have only provided data on 2 of the last 4 years.
Planet Patrol made a Freedom of Information request to Defra on 6th April asking for any data or information they have on the numbers of bags for life sold by supermarket retailers and how the proceeds are spent. We received a response on 26th April from Defra to say that, under Regulation 12(4)(a) of the Freedom of Information Act 2000, Defra is exempt from providing this information as it was not held at the time when the request was received. When we asked some of the major retailers directly for these figures, we had responses to say that this is ‘commercially sensitive information’ which they are not comfortable sharing.
It’s clear that the 5p charge isn’t as effective as reports claim and it isn’t achieving its purpose of reducing the number of plastic bags sold overall or encouraging reuse. In Planet Patrol’s view, the next step should be to require retailers to publish their data on all plastic bag sales, so that we can understand the full extent of the problem. Ultimately, we need to ban plastic carrier bags altogether to make any real difference.
The single use bag charge legislation only ‘encourages’ businesses to donate the money raised through plastic bag sales – they are not legally required to do so. This expectation has been made clear, for example by Neil Parish MP, Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee, who said “as much money as possible from the plastic bag tax should be going to charitable causes.”
A spokesman for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs also said: “There is a clear expectation to donate the proceeds of the plastic bag charge to good causes. We know that £95m raised has been donated to good causes so far and by publishing the data on donations, along with the number of bags distributed, this has the added effect of encouraging retailers to donate to good causes.”
Most of the biggest UK retailers reportedly donate the vast majority of the proceeds. However, the amount of money being donated has fallen since 2016-17, as most big retailers have shifted from single-use carrier bags to bags for life.
None of the top supermarket retailers offer full transparency on where the net proceeds from bag for life sales go.
Various supermarkets claim proceeds from plastic bag sales help to fund community projects or are donated to good causes, such as Tesco with its ‘Tesco Community Grants’ (formerly known as the Tesco Bags of Help scheme). However, no indication is given of the proportion of the total proceeds donated.
We use Tesco as an example, purely because we have more information on their plastic bag sales than most other supermarkets.
Greenpeace and EIA reported that Tesco’s bag for life sales rose from 430 million in 2017 to 713 million in 2019. The price of Tesco’s basic bags for life were 10p in 2019, which would equate to £71.3 million made from bag for life sales in 2019 alone.
In 2019-20, Tesco said “Through our Bags of Help community grant scheme, funded by the sales of single use carrier bags and the profits from our bags for life, we donated £13,066,408 to good causes in the UK”. Since £1.75 million came from the sales of single-use plastic bag, that leaves £11.32 million donated from bag for life sales. There is no information given about how the remaining £59.98 million was spent, left from the £71.3 million total from bag for life sales. Even with some of this money paying for the bags themselves and VAT, that’s a lot of money leftover with no clear insight into how Tesco is spending it.
This shows the lack of transparency we are seeing from retailers with regards to bag for life proceeds. What’s more, retailers are free to charge whatever they like for bags for life and higher costs are often justified as a way of encouraging customers to reuse bags, rather than admitting that some of the money raised may be kept as profit. For retailers who have stopped offering single-use plastic bags in the name of reducing plastic use and protecting the environment, it would be great to see the monies raised from bag for life sales funding environmental protection and conservation efforts.
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