Plastic bags - Environmental Audit Committee Contents

1  Background

1. In September 2013 the Deputy Prime Minister announced plans to introduce a mandatory five pence charge for single-use plastic carrier bags in England from Autumn 2015.[1] The provision for such a charge had been included in the Climate Change Act 2008.[2] Wales and Northern Ireland have already introduced a charge on single-use bags, and Scotland plans to introduce a charge in 2014.[3] The Republic of Ireland introduced a charge in 2002.[4]

2. In November 2013 the Government launched a consultation on the proposals.[5] The Government has indicated that it will not replicate the Welsh scheme, which has reduced bag use by 76% (Figure 1), but intends instead to introduce a series of exemptions beyond those applied in Wales. The consultation stated that "some decisions have already been made, such as the size of the charge (5p) and what it applies to (single-use plastic bags)"[6] and that it will "not include re-usable bags for life or paper bags. Nor will it apply to organisations with fewer than 250 employees".[7] The consultation additionally proposes an exemption for biodegradable bags.[8]

3. Over the past decade, many governments have taken initiatives to reduce the sale or use of disposable plastic bags. These include bans, the use of mandatory pricing and voluntary measures.[9] In Denmark, where plastic bags are taxed, use of thin plastic bags has dropped to an estimated four bags per person each year.[10] In contrast people in England use an average of 133 bags a year,[11] whilst use in Wales has fallen to 22 per person.[12]

4. In England, the Government has until now relied on voluntary schemes to try to reduce bag use. Supermarkets gave out 7.1 billion single-use plastic carrier bags in 2012,[13] and high street retailers a further 1.5 billion.[14] However, although voluntary measures initially reduced the number of bags taken by shoppers,[15] the number of plastic bags used in England increased by 4% last year.[16] Following the introduction of a charge use has fallen by 76% in Wales in the same period. Figure 1 Number of single-use carrier bags issued in supermarkets
Nation 2010 2011 2012 % change


England 6.29bn6.77bn 7.06bn +4%
Wales 0.35bn0.27bn 0.07bn -76%*

* On 1 October 2011 Wales introduced a charge for single use carrier bags. The data for 2012 represents the first full calendar year of reporting under that charge.

Source: WRAP

5. The Republic of Ireland was the first country in the world to implement a minimum charge through its plastic bag tax in 2002. This was initially set at 15 cent (12p[17]) per bag, but was increased to 22 cent (18p) in 2007. Bag use in the Republic of Ireland has fallen by 90%.[18] Revenue from the tax goes into a dedicated environment fund. Italy introduced a law prohibiting the distribution of single-use plastic bags in 2011, although an exemption was later allowed for compostable bags. The UK Government has opposed the Italian ban, considering it illegal under the European Packaging Directive and requiring a full derogation to the single market for all 'light-weight bags'[19] (although we heard that the European Commission has not chosen to intervene on the Italian ban).[20]

6. In November 2013, the European Commission adopted a proposal that requires Member States to reduce their use of lightweight plastic carrier bags. The proposal amends the Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive to encourage states to adopt measures to reduce the consumption of thin plastic carrier bags. It would allow taxing or banning plastic bags, as long as these measures do not impose significant restrictions in the internal market.[21]

7. Our aim in this inquiry was to examine the Government's proposals for a carrier bag charge in England. We took oral evidence from the Welsh Government; a behavioural psychologist who evaluated the impact of the Welsh scheme; WRAP (the Government's advisory body on waste); British Retail Consortium; a member of the 'break the bag habit' litter group (the Campaign to Protect Rural England); recyclers and industry groups; and Defra Minister Dan Rogerson MP.

8. In this report we first examine the aims of the proposed scheme. In Part 2 we examine the whether the design of the proposed scheme will be effective in changing shoppers' behaviours to use fewer bags and benefit the environment, and in Part 3 we examine the case for the exemption from the charge for biodegradable bags.

Aims of the bag charge

9. The Government expects that the charge "will reduce the number of plastic bags used in England and increase their reuse, with an associated reduction in littering"[22]. Its Call for Evidence: Single-Use Plastic Bag Charge for England notes that:

    Discarded plastic bags are an iconic symbol of waste. They are a very visible form of littering and can cause injury to marine wildlife. The environmental impact of plastic bags extends beyond their littering. They consume resources, including oil, in their creation. Even when disposed of responsibly, plastic bags can last for long periods of time in landfill sites.[23]

Defra told us that its "main aim remains to reduce the distribution of plastic bags, and tackle waste and littering, with reuse and eventual recycling being important secondary aims."[24] The Defra Minister also told us:

    the main aim originally was around this issue of littering and the concern that we have all had on that. Clearly, there is another gain for us in terms of the reduction in carbon emissions, but the key measure of success will be how many fewer of these bags are going into circulation.[25]

10. Groups concerned with the environmental impact of litter, including a 'break the bag habit' group, are campaigning for the introduction of a charge for all single-use carrier bags.[26] Marine Conservation Society, a member of this campaign, told us:

    plastic bags are an ubiquitous, widely dispersed, long-lasting, unsightly and hazardous form of litter that, whether whole or broken down into micro-particles, pose a threat to marine wildlife many of which are already endangered or threatened by human exploitation or activities. [27]

Keep Britain Tidy, which publishes annual data on litter, told us "in 2012-13 in England 9% of sites surveyed as part of the Local Environmental Quality Survey for England had single-use carrier bag litter present. This is a slight decline from 10% in 2009-10 but shows bags still blight almost 1 in 10 of all places in England".[28]

11. Packaging and Film Association (PAFA) believed that other types of litter are more significant than plastic bags.[29] The most common materials found in the Keep Britain Tidy survey were smokers' material (82% of locations), confectionery material (68%), non-alcoholic drinks material (52%) and fast food material (32%), whilst supermarket bags were found in 3% of survey sites and other retail bags were found in 6%.[30] Barry Turner of PAFA told us "by focusing on this area, you are potentially misleading the general consumer to think that we are dealing with an issue of far greater significance than it is."[31] However, Campaign to Protect Rural England told us that plastic bags have a greater visual impact than other types of litter:

    Single-use bags, and plastic carrier bags in particular, are a huge litter problem .... They are very conspicuous in terms of their volume and the fact that they get blown around.[32]

As part our Well-being inquiry, we heard that litter also has an impact on people's sense of community cohesion and trust. Dr David Halpern, of the Cabinet Office's Behavioural Insights team explained:

    Seeing a messy environment—bags around or whatever—affects how you feel about other people, and we know that from a number of other studies. It looks like a rule has been broken because of litter; in fact, is a classic example. It leads to other kinds of problems. It changes how you feel about other people. We have already established that social trust is important. How do you know whether other people can be trusted? You infer it from the environment.[33]

12. There is evidence that charging for carrier bags leads to fewer bags being discarded as litter. In Ireland, the proportion of plastic-bag litter dropped from 5% prior to the introduction of the plastic bag levy to 0.2% in 2004. Academics studying the Irish tax concluded that there had been an "associated gain in the form of reduced littering and negative landscape effects".[34] There is not yet sufficient data to draw firm conclusions in Wales, but there are some indications that numbers of bags discarded as litter have fallen. Keep Wales Tidy told us that there has been a reduction in the proportion of streets where carrier bags were found since the charge:

    In the full survey year prior to the introduction of the levy, carrier bags were found on an average of 1.1% of each local authority's streets. Since the introduction of the levy that figure has dropped to 0.9%. The percentage of streets littered with carrier bags has reduced in 12 of the 22 local authorities and remained the same in a further four.[35]

13. In 2006, the Environment Agency commissioned research into the environmental impact of plastic bags, which concluded that "the environmental impact of plastic bags is dominated by their resource use and production. Transport, secondary packaging and end-of-life processing generally have a minimal influence on their environmental performance".[36] The study estimated that the bags needed to carry a month's worth of shopping (82 single-use plastic bags) would be responsible for carbon emissions equivalent to 1.578kg CO2[37] — approximately equal to those from travelling 5 miles in the average petrol car.[38] In their evidence to our inquiry Defra initially misinterpreted the Environment Agency figures as the carbon emissions for a single bag rather than eighty-two. When we pointed this out to Defra, they confirmed that instead of "permanently taking 1.7 million to 2.7 million cars off the road", as the Minister told us on 18 December,[39] the correct figure is 32,000 to 43,000 cars.[40] The analysis used by Defra to inform their policy therefore substantially over-estimated the carbon impact of plastic bags.[41] However, whilst considerably lower than Defra initially stated, this impact is still significant and the Government should do everything to ensure that the policy achieves the greatest reduction possible.

14. The carbon impact of a carrier bag is modest, but given the numbers of bags used a large decrease in use will significantly reduce carbon emissions. The plastic bag charge will not solve the problems of litter, but offers an opportunity to reduce the numbers of plastic bags that end up as litter by encouraging reuse, and potentially the impact of those in the natural environment.

15. The Government has multiple aims for the plastic bag charging policy, including reducing emissions, waste, and litter, but has not adequately determined their relative priority. Before proceeding it should have undertaken a structured appraisal of the evidence on the potential environmental gains associated with each objective and the extent to which the charge and type of bag would secure these gains, along with an assessment of their associated risks and wider impacts. It needs to ensure its analysis is robust and accurate.

1   Defra and Office of Deputy Prime Minister press release 'Plastic bag charge set to benefit the environment' 14 September 2013.  Back

2   Climate Change Act 2008, S77; This enables the Government to require sellers of goods to charge for single-use plastic bags that they supply to their customers. Back

3   Defra, Single-Use Plastic Bag Charge for England: Call for Evidence, November 2013, para 5 Back

4   Defra, Single-Use Plastic Bag Charge for England: Call for Evidence, November 2013, para 33 Back

5   Defra, Single-Use Plastic Bag Charge for England: Call for Evidence, November 2013 Back

6   Defra, Single-Use Plastic Bag Charge for England: Call for Evidence, November 2013, para 13 Back

7   Defra, Single-Use Plastic Bag Charge for England: Call for Evidence, November 2013, para 9 Back

8   Defra, Single-Use Plastic Bag Charge for England: Call for Evidence, November 2013, para 40-47 Back

9   Dr Wouter Poortinga (BAG 001), para 2 Back

10   European Commission, MEMO/13/945 4 November 2013  Back

11   Wrap's analysis states that usage in England was 11.2/month per person in 2012. However, this uses 2011 population data. Using 2012 population data (ONS data which gives total population in England for 2012 as 53,493,700) the total is 132 bags per person.  Back

12   Wrap submission states that people in Wales use 1.8/month: WRAP (BAG 031) para 11; However, this uses 2011 population data- using 2012 ONS data gives a population of 3,074,100, and usage of 1.9/month or 23 bags a year- although this is sensitive to rounding. Back

13 Back

14   Defra (BAG 032), para 16 Back

15   In December 2008 seven of Britain's leading supermarkets - represented by the British Retail Consortium (BRC) - signed up to a voluntary agreement with the Government to cut the number of carrier bags distributed by the end of May 2009 by 50% (against 2006 levels). The target was narrowly missed (the reduction was 48% for the UK as a whole); Defra, ARCHIVE: Carrier bag waste Last updated March 2010; WRAP (BAG 031), para 7 Back

16   However, although more bags are being used, as bags have got thinner the total material used has fallen. In 2012, total carrier bags weighed 70,400 tonnes in the UK. This compares to 109,800 tonnes in 2006 and 72,300 tonnes in 2011. These figures represent a reduction of 36% since the baseline year of 2006; WRAP (BAG 031), para 20 Back

17   All Euro values based on exchange rate at 28/1/2014 source:  Back

18   Convery, F., McDonnell, S. Ferreira, S. (2007) 'The most popular tax in Europe? Lessons from the Irish plastic bags levy' Environmental Resource Econ 38:1-11  Back

19   Defra (BAG 032), para 30 Back

20   Qq118-121 Back

21   European Commission Press Release IP/13/1017 4 November 2013; The Government's proposals for a 5p charge in England are part of its Waste Prevention Programme which was published in December 2013. This is required under the revised EU Waste Framework Directive (2008/98/EC). Back

22   Defra, Single-Use Plastic Bag Charge for England: Call for Evidence, November 2013, para 7 Back

23   Defra, Single-Use Plastic Bag Charge for England: Call for Evidence, November 2013,para 1 and 2 Back

24   Defra (BAG 032), para 2 Back

25   Q54 Back

26   the Break the Bag Habit coalition includes The Campaign to Protect Rural England, Keep Britain Tidy, Surfers Against Sewage, Thames 21 and Greener upon Thames; Campaign to Protect Rural England (BAG 023, para 4 Back

27   Marine Conservation Society (BAG 013), para 1 Back

28   Keep Britain Tidy (BAG 022), para 1 Back

29   Packaging and Films Association (PAFA) (BAG 009, para 3.2 Back

30   Keep Britain Tidy, 'How Clean is England?: The Local Environmental Quality Survey of England 2012/13', p17 Back

31   Q32 [Barry Turner] Back

32   Q32 [Neil Sinden] Back

33   Oral evidence taken on 15 January 2014 on Well-being, HC59iii Q141; References: Keizer, Lindenberg, Steg, (2008) 'The Spreading of Disorder' Science; Cialdini, Goldstein (2004) 'Social influence: compliance and conformity', Annual Review of Psychology; Krauss, Freedman, Whitcup (1978) 'Field and laboratory studies of littering', Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. Back

34   Convery, F., McDonnell, S. Ferreira, S. (2007) 'The most popular tax in Europe? Lessons from the Irish plastic bags levy' Environmental Resource Econ 38:1-11 Back

35   Keep Wales Tidy (BAG 041); They add that "street-data is likely to significantly understate the extent of littered carrier bags. This owes to the physical properties of carrier bags which render them not readily degradable, meaning they persist for long periods in the environment and are easily transportable by weather, causing wide dispersal." Back

36   Environment Agency, 'Life cycle assessment of supermarket carrier bags: a review of the bags available in 2006' Report SC030148 Executive Summary Back

37   Environment Agency, 'Life cycle assessment of supermarket carrier bags: a review of the bags available in 2006' Report SC030148; This assumes 40% re-use of these bags- without it the emissions increase to 2.098kg - see table 6.1 p46 and Figure 2 of this report; The number of bags needed for a month's worth of shopping is the 'reference flow' - see table 3.1 p18; We have checked that our interpretation is correct with Intertek, the authors of the report. Back

38   The Carbon Trust state (p4) that an average petrol car emits 0.318827kg CO2e per mile. Back

39   Q49 [Dan Rogerson]; Footnote 15, para 19 of Defra (BAG 032) indicates that Defra are using '1.57 kg co2e per bag'. Back

40   After we pointed out their error, Defra provided us with revised figures (BAG 0049). Our own analysis, suggests that given the average annual car mileage is 8,200 miles (National Traffic Survey 2012), the average car produces 2,614kg CO2e/year (see footnote 38). Using a figure of 0.019kg CO2e per bag, a 75% reduction in bag use (equivalent to 5,295 million bags) would be equivalent to an annual reduction of 102,025 metric tonnes CO2e or the equivalent annual emissions of 39,024 cars. Back

41   The draft EC impact assessment does the same- (footnote 12, p14 of Impact Assessment) Back

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Prepared 6 February 2014