Bags of Potential: Why Banning Single-Use Plastic Bags is Such a Promising Idea
In England, there is currently talk up putting up plastic bag charges to 10p. This initiative would also be extended to smaller retailers, as it is estimated they still dole out around three billion bags every single year (BBC). Whilst results of plastic bag charges are encouraging – 83% fewer bags were issued by the seven major English retailers in 2016/17 (GOV.UK) – we are still using a lot of plastic bags. Is 10p really going to make a difference?
Case studies by country: who else in Europe is setting a good example?
In accordance with this, many European countries are taking drastic action – but it is working better in some countries than in others. Here is a brief summary of the response to the directive, from some of our fellow European countries, to see who is setting the best example in the fight against plastic:
France banned single-use plastic bags in 2016, and banned plastic bags for produce in 2017 (Earthday). Interestingly, they have taken this further, and have become the first country to ban plastic plates, cups and cutlery. The law won’t come into effect until 2020, and it is still uncertain territory – some people say that it violates rules regarding the free movement of goods, set by the European Union (The Independent). However, it is a move in the right direction and shows France’s commitment to truly tackling climate change.
People in Denmark use on average just 4 single-use plastic bags each per year (National Geographic). This is perhaps in part due to a plastic bag charge of around 38p per bag. It could also be to do with longevity: Denmark was the first country to bring in a plastic bag tax, all the way back in 1994. They are also running an interesting pilot project, pioneered by Netto. The retailer adds around 6p to each plastic bag, then when customers return bags, they will be refunded approximately 12p. When bags aren’t returned, Netto donates the money to charity. It’s an interesting example, and it will be even more interested to see what happens if Netto rolls this initiative out in all stores.
In Finland, a plastic bag costs around 15p, and just like Denmark, the average Finn uses just 4 single-use plastic bags per year (European Commission). What’s really interesting is the state of mind of the Finnish people: in a survey about the cost of plastic bags, 37% -more than a third – of people thought the sale of plastic bags should be banned completely (Uutiset).
Germany’s stance on single use plastic bags is far from clear cut. As a country that is well known for pioneering sustainability, it might be surprising for you to learn that Germany was well behind Denmark in introducing measures to reduce plastic bag use: they have had charges in place since April 2016 (Euractiv). Any shops that offer customers a plastic bag must pay a recycling tax, which is why there are such variable costs for bags in the country. Germany is heading in the right direction, but for a country that does such a lot for the environment, they could certainly do more.
Austria has opted for a voluntary system, whereby shops can opt in or out of providing plastic bags. The thing is, the majority had opted out by January 2017, offering reusable bags for sale instead (The Local). Austria’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, Environment and Water Management says this has reduced the use of single-use bags by 15% – that’s almost 89 million plastic bags! (RISI). The initiative is being heralded as a success because it shows that a ban isn’t necessarily required, and the retail sector has come together on this issue of its own accord. However, couldn’t that percentage be a lot higher if there was a ban in place?…
Italy banned plastic bags in 2011, allowing only biodegradable bags to be used in shops. Earlier this year, they also banned plastic bags for fruit, vegetable and baked goods – any bags used for these products must now be biodegradable or compostable. Whilst these seem like logical, positive measures, many people in Italy weren’t happy, and it’s claimed the situation has been handled very badly by politicians (NY Times).
In 2016, the Dutch government imposed a charge on all plastic bags given away in supermarkets. It is working well – last year, a 71% drop in plastic bag consumption was reported, and it is thought that people bring their own bags with them when shopping. 30% of retailers do now offer paper bags instead, so it isn’t an out and out ban on all bags (NL Times).
Whilst Estonia charged for larger bags, thinner plastic bags were completely free of charge and were often put near supermarket checkouts for people to take freely. Large retailers have now agreed to charge for thin plastic bags as well, and it’s certainly a step in the right direction – last month, it was reported that plastic bag consumption was down by around 20% (News ERR).
Our position on the 10p plastic bag tax
Whilst a higher plastic bag tax is a step in the right direction, at GreenSeas Trust, we campaign for ideas that will have a big impact. After all, it’s exactly what our oceans need – drastic changes to slow the tide of plastic constantly filtering into them. As a charity, our position on the issue is firm: we strongly believe that to make the biggest difference possible, plastic bags should be banned. If they are not banned, then the tax on them needs to be higher so that it acts as a deterrent to using them.
Our trustee, Fazilette Khan, says: “At GreenSeas Trust, we are completely behind a ban on single-use plastic bags. The bags available to shoppers in supermarkets should be heavy duty, cloth etc. – bags that can be used umpteen times. If we can’t implement a complete ban right away, then bags should be more expensive, say £1, an amount equivalent to the €1 charged in French supermarkets. This means if you forget your bag and you have to fork out £1 every time, you will quickly learn to take a reusable bag with you. I know first hand after doing it myself in France! After the fourth bag I bought, it just became second nature to take a bag with me. We must learn from our EU neighbours’ initiatives and adopt similar policies and practices where they have proven to be successful in reducing the consumption of single-use plastic bags. This will go a long way towards creating a more sustainable future.”
It’s evident even from the brief case studies above that many countries are using far fewer plastic bags. What we need in the UK is to get to a stage where we are using fewer plastics, not just because of stricter laws, but because of our mindset. This is the only real way to combat the issue; people won’t change their behaviour unless their attitudes change as well. It’s evident in the behaviour of people in Denmark – bags aren’t banned, but people use just four a year on average. For the time being, let’s hope there will be shifts towards stricter bans soon – and some time in the future, let’s hope to become more like Denmark in our general attitude towards plastic.
- Invest in reusable bags and remember to use them. Make it part of your daily routine to make sure you are carrying a reusable bag, or have some in your car in case you want to pop into a shop.
- Make a donation to us. We are continually fighting for more responsible use of plastics to help reduce the amount that enter our oceans. With your help, we can achieve so much more.
- Lobby the government. Write to your MP to express your concern about single use plastics, and bring up the topic of banning plastic bags altogether – or, at the very least, raising taxes/ introducing a deposit return scheme. However, if we want to really break the hold single use plastics have on us, a total ban is going to be the most effective method.
Together, we can work towards less pollution and cleaner oceans, for marine life and for us.