Surfers Against Sewage


Single use bag facts for England in 2012:

  • Over 7 billion single use bags were distributed.
  • That's 224 bags per second.
  • Or 133 bags per person per year.
  • If each of these bags were charged at 5p per bag that would cost £6.65 over the year.

Why are these pledges important?

England's approach to reducing single use bags is seriously lagging behind the rest of the UK's devolved nations. Although the Government has committed to a bag charge in 2015 for England a strong message of support is needed to ensure this commitment remains a priority and is fully implemented.

What are you going to do with these pledges?

Making the pledge can help focus our efforts on minimising our environmental impacts. Reducing the numbers of single use bags we use every year is an easy and positive change to make. The Break The Bag Habit coalition will also use the pledge numbers to remind Government and industry of the strong public support for the bag charge.

Why is the site focusing only on England?

Bag charges are already in place in Ireland, Wales and Northern Ireland and have been extremely successful in reducing the distribution of single use bags and associated littering of the environment. Scotland is due to bring in a charge in autumn 2014. England has said it will bring in a charge in 2015. Introducing a system in England would also ensure a consistent system throughout the UK. However, at present, the suggested English system has some significant differences to the Welsh and Scottish systems, which we believe will make it less effective.

What difference will 5p make on a normal shop?

In all existing schemes the charge has been shown to be very successful at cutting bag usage. A charge makes people think if they really need a bag and helps to change behaviour as people become used to bringing their own bags.

In this economic climate should you be asking people to pay for bags?

No-one will be forced to buy a bag - there is always the option to bring your own, saving yourself money and helping to make the environment safer and cleaner.

Does a charge promote long term behavioural change?

In Ireland, a carrier bag tax of 5c was introduced in 2002, which led to a 90% reduction in the number of single use carrier bags. The positive impact of the charge in Ireland has included a reduction in plastic bag litter from around 5% to 0.22%. After several years, bag usage did start to increase and this was countered by raising the tax to 22c in 2007. Both Wales and Northern Ireland have contingency plans in place should the same occur in these countries. M&S has also found that since the introduction of a charge for food hall bags in 2008, the number being given out has remained 80% lower than before the charge was introduced.

Plastic bags are only a small part of the waste stream, why pick on them?

We are not asking for a charge just on plastic bags but ALL single use bags. A charge on bags would not only be a way of starting to tackle litter issues but also of raising awareness of environmental issues with the public in general. Plastic bags although only a small part of the municipal waste stream by weight, are an extremely visible and easily preventable source of pollution. Furthermore municipal weight analyses do not take into account the effect of littering in the countryside, in rivers and the sea. A recent study in Wales by AEA Technology of 925kg of litter concluded that 2.7% of litter by weight was plastic bags. At beach cleans plastic bags make up around 2% of items found.

Why would you charge for paper bags? They will just break down…

Single use paper bags can actually have quite a large carbon footprint as they are heavier to transport than e.g. plastic bags. Our aim is to try and change behaviour and get people used to reusing bags and reducing the amount of waste we create overall.

They are not really single use as people use them for lots of other purposes… Won't there be a massive increase in bin liners?

An NOP survey, commissioned by Defra in 2000, suggested that more than 80% of people reuse their plastic carrier bags. However, this simply meant that 80% of people re-use some of their plastic bags some of the time, mostly as bin liners. When Ireland introduced the charge on plastic bags there were reports of a 77% increase in the sale of plastic kitchen bags, which equates to 70 million bags. However, the 90% reduction in carrier bags equated to a reduction of one billion bags, leaving a net reduction of 930 million bags. The small numerical increases in sales of kitchen bin liners and garbage bags in the Republic of Ireland would also indicate that the actual levels of plastic bag re-use in Ireland were nowhere near as high as the industry had previously suggested. Additionally, as the recycling infrastructure in England and the UK continues to improve, the amount of bin liners sold should decrease as people recycle their waste instead of throwing it in a bin. In Wales a study on the usage of bin liners showed that over 2012, the sales of swing-bin and pedal-bin liners in the whole retailer market were estimated at 11 million higher than if the charge had not been introduced, equating to 80 tonnes of material. These increases were small in comparison to the reduction of thin-gauge carrier bags associated with the charge's introduction. For the seven largest grocery retailers, there was a reduction of 284 million thin-gauge carrier bags (2,129 tonnes) between 2010 and 2012. Therefore, the increase in bin-liner sales was around 4% of the reduction in thin-gauge bags. The relatively small magnitude of the increased sales of bin bags suggests that the majority of thin-gauge carrier bags were not being used as bin liners; had this been the case, the increase in bin-bag sales would have been on a similar scale to the reduction in thin-gauge carrier bags (REF).

Don't retailers oppose the charge?

The British Retail Consortium stated: "…they (Governments) will have to take a lead and go beyond voluntary measures. Any legislation should be as similar as possible to what's in place in Wales and we are already working with other governments as they develop their plans." (4) The Association of Convenience stores also indicated that they would not oppose the introduction of a charge in England bags so long as it is implemented in a way that minimizes regulatory burdens on retailers, and report that results from Wales so far show small cost savings for stores and no discernible impact on sales. Marks & Spencer also state: "We are strong supporters of legislation requiring a minimum charge of 5p which was introduced in Wales in October 2011." (3)

Won't litter increase if people don't have bags to put things in?

Available evidence has shown this not to be the case - In Ireland before the tax plastic bags made up about 5% of visible litter in Ireland now less than 1%. People in Ireland, Wales and Northern Ireland have easily got used to taking a bag shopping - why should people in England be any different? Substitution by paper bags is unlikely as we are asking for a charge on all single use bags not just plastic. Although in Ireland there was initially about a 77% increase in sale of plastic kitchen bags, equating to 70 million bags, there was also 90% reduction in carrier bags equating to a reduction of 1 billion bags, leaving a net reduction of 930 million bags.

Why not bring in a ban on bags?

We want to give people a choice - as this is a charge, rather than a tax, everyone has a choice about whether to pay it. If people take their own bags with them to the shops, they will not have to pay a penny more for their shopping than they do today.

How do you calculate the number of bags offset by an individual?

When we take a pledge on our website, we calculate how many bags the average English person will use between the date of taking the pledge and the 1st October 2015, the date the UK government intends to introduce the 5p bag charge in England.

How do you calculate the overall number of single use bags the campaign will offset?

This is simply an accumulation of all the individual pledge (bags offset) numbers.

How can I help?

Simply fill out the form on this page to pledge to stop using single use bags, and make sure you stick to the pledge. You can also help us spread the word by sharing this page and the images above with your friends and family. And don't forget to tweet a Killer Bags image & campaign message to your favourite supermarket chain.

Will a charge on bags really make an impact?

In Ireland, Wales and Northern Ireland where there is already a charge system, the scheme has been very successful. Figures show that for all these countries there has been a 70% to 90% decrease in the number of bags given out. In Ireland figures show that approximately 90% of shoppers now use reusable/ long life bags, 6% use cardboard boxes, 4% plastic bags and 1% other means. (2) The Welsh scheme has proved immensely popular, with over 70% of consumers supporting it. In July 2012, John Griffiths, the then Minister for Environment and Sustainable Development in the Welsh Government, said in a written statement that retailers had estimated a fall in single-use bags issued of between 70-96 per cent. In Northern Ireland a levy was introduced in April 2013. Provisional figures released by DoE NI for the first quarter of 2013-14 suggest that some supermarkets could see a reduction of over 80% in the number of bags given out. Marks & Spencer introduced a charge independently, reporting that: "By introducing a carrier bag charging, we've significantly reduced the number of bags our customers use (reduction of 78% or 362m bags last year vs. 2006/07)." (3)

A charge would hit the poorest people most…

How? It's a choice to buy a bag. A 5p charge and an annual per capita usage of. 133 bags, equates to about £6.50 per year if people kept up their same level of usage. However figs from Wales and Ireland show that this is unlikely to be the case. Public support increased to 70% in Wales (during the recession) and the BTBH poll showed over 50% support (during the recession). It's not a tax (compulsory), it's a charge (voluntary), therefore people can elect for it not to affect their household budget. No-one has to pay the charge as no one has to buy a bag! – we can all take a reusable bag shopping. Shops such as Lidl already charge for bags with no problems for customers.

Why can't we have a return/recycle system instead? What's wrong with an incentive scheme?

Although a voluntary system has helped to bring down bag usage, unfortunately the use of bags has crept back up in England. Latest figures from WRAP show that 7.06 billion supermarket bags were given away in England in 2012; a 4.4% rise from 2011. Wales showed a 76% decrease.

What about meat and fish? We can't reuse bags for these…

As in Wales we would expect there to be exemptions for the charge for items such as raw food packaging and prescription packaging.

Won't plastic bags just get replaced by paper bags? Potentially at a greater environmental cost…

Replacing one form of single use bag with another does not make environmental or economic sense and will not achieve the change in behaviour which is key to reducing our waste over all. Paper bags can have a significant environmental impact through production and transport. Therefore we are calling on the Government to follow the system in Wales, where there is a charge on ALL single-use bags, both plastic and paper. (N.B. However in Ireland where there is a charge on plastic bags only, evidence shows there has been no great increase in the use of paper bags. Rather customers are reusing bags they already have - approximately 90% of shoppers now use reusable/ long life bags, 6% use cardboard boxes, 4% plastic bags and 1% other means (info from Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, 2005. Submission from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. Edinburgh: Scottish Parliament Environment and Rural Development Committee.))

A recent study by the EA showed that single use plastic bags were the most environmentally friendly. Why put a charge on them?

The study found that single use plastic bags have the smallest carbon footprint of all types of bags, but also showed that plastic 'bags for life' need only be used four or more times to have a lower carbon footprint than single-use bag. Cotton bags would need to be used about 131 times to have a similar carbon footprint. Cotton bags last for several years making this easy to achieve. The report did not take into account the effects of littering of plastic bags, degradation of plastics in the marine environment, or effects on wildlife. The report itself states "The report does not consider the introduction of a carrier bag tax, the effects of littering, the ability and willingness of consumers to change behaviour, any adverse impacts of degradable polymers in the recycling stream, nor the potential economic impacts on UK business." A spokesman for the Environment Agency also argued that the report confirmed that the high-profile campaign against single-use carrier bags was justified and had a positive effect in encouraging retailers to cut down on single-use plastic bags. "You can spin it [to show single-use plastic bags have the lowest impact], but the conclusion is that it is more sensible to use reusable bags and then reuse them," he said, adding that the report did not take account of other environmental impacts associated with single-use bags, such as litter. "Plastic bags are still a huge issue and consumer behaviour towards bags has changed positively in recent years… [the focus on bags] makes people think about other impacts and has led into the debate about packaging" (Business Green link).

Won't it increase costs for retailers?

A carrier bag charge can reduce costs to business, as well as making checkouts faster and tidier. IKEA report that - "Checkout process times and efficiency have speeded up and the levels of litter in the store and car park have dropped." (1)

Won't you be putting people out of work?

Over 90% of plastic bags come from Asia so the number of people working purely on plastic bags in the UK is extremely low. Most bag manufacturers do more than make plastic bags. Jobs would also be created as a result of a charge, both in environmental projects funded by the charge's proceeds, and in the industry for robust reusable bags. Creative ways of helping protect indigenous industry could be developed, for example, by stipulating a minimum recycled content of plastic bags, which would make it more difficult for overseas manufacturers to compete.

Where will the money go?

We would suggest that the money go to fund environmental schemes.

What's the problem with the proposed English scheme?

It is proposed the paper bags and biodegradable bags be exempt from the charge.

We believe that any charge should cover all single use bags. This is to ensure that other forms of single use packaging do not simply replace plastic shopping bags - replacing free plastic shopping bags with free paper or biodegradable bags is not a solution. The public should be encouraged to reuse bags, rather than replacing one form of disposable bag for another. Exemptions for paper and biodegradable bags could also have the perverse effect of increasing the number of these bags in circulation, both of which have environmental implications. This would go against the government's commitment to 'working to reduce litter' and to achieving a zero waste economy as detailed in Defra's Waste Review. We also have serious concerns regarding the impact that any 'biodegradable' bag could have on the plastic recycling sector. Recycling is a key component of reducing environmental impact and money should be spent to improve overall recycling and innovation within this industry, not on producing another single use, throw away item. Additionally giving the label 'biodegradable' to a bag would seem to imply that it is acceptable to dispose of this item into the environment, thereby increasing littering.

It is proposed that businesses with fewer than 250 employees be exempt.

We also believe that all retailers should be covered by the scheme. The exclusion of SMEs (or organisations with less than 250 employees as stated in Defra's 'Call for Evidence') is a matter of considerable concern. Many of the businesses contributing to beach and coastal litter, in particular, will fall into this category. This exemption could prevent a reduction in coastal litter from SME sources. It is necessary to include SMEs to implement Government's stated intent to be as "consistent as practical with the charging scheme in the other countries of the UK, in order to maintain a coherent regulatory environment" and "to minimise confusion for the public and additional burden on cross-border organisations." (1) It would seem to be perverse to bring in this exemption which the majority of SMEs themselves do not welcome.


1) IKEA statement to Break the Bag Habit 2012

"IKEA UK first charged for one use plastic carrier bags in June 2005. By September of the same year, numbers of single-use bags given away had dropped from 615,000 a week to 33,000 being purchased by customers for 10p each. The swift and steep 95% drop in bag use prompted IKEA to revise its policy further and, in 2006, it completely stopped providing customers with single-use carrier bags at its checkout lines. Since then, it has realised £3.5m in reduced operational costs on purchasing bags and witnessed full acceptance by its customers who now know that they must bring their own bags to the store or purchase an IKEA Big Blue or Baby Blue bag. This is a bag for life which they can return at any time if it wears out free of charge. Checkout process times and efficiency have speeded up and the levels of litter in the store and car park have dropped also. The re introduction of paper carriers which had in previous years been used by IKEA stores were rejected as a replacement due to fact that paper can have a higher environmental impact, with one pallet of plastic bags equating to 10 pallets of paper. Paper bags are degradable but generally only have one use before being discarded. Providing a high quality durable bag for life with the IKEA Blue bag and at a low price was considered the best environmental option."


From Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, 2005. Submission from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. Edinburgh: Scottish Parliament Environment and Rural Development Committee.


M&S link


British Retail Consortium link

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