Plastic Bag Tax: UK Environmental Audit Committee Report

Plastic Bag TaxMore than 8 billion plastic carrier bags are used in England over the course of a year. Wales has levied a 5p charge for plastic bags and this government tax has significantly reduced plastic bag use by over 75 percent.

This proposal in England has several exemptions for small retailers, paper and biodegradable exemptions may be complex and difficult to enforce. Which shopping bags are environmentally threatening may also be too confusing to effectively enforce. The Welsh scheme is a 5p charge that would apply to all bag types and all retailers.

There is a general consensus that charging a fee for a carrier bag does reduce the number of these bags that are thrown away as litter. Government policies may focus on schemes that are easier to implement and that reinforce other positive environmental policies. Steps can be taken to keep a bag price at a minimum.

The more promising gain from charging a fee for carrier bags is that shoppers use fewer bags and re use the ones that have been previously purchased. Options for disposing of bags and recycling these plastic products can become complex. There can be significant risks about contamination and waste management is an important government program to consider. There are current proposals for exemptions for bio degradable bags. This form of exemption is controversial, however.

Environmental Auditing

A Climate Change Act was introduced into law for single use plastic bag carriers in England that is scheduled to begin in Autumn of 2015. This new law is said to enact a 5p charge for each single use bag. There have been several consultations on this legal matter. A reduction in plastic bag use is one of the proposals for this enactment. Several governments have taken their own initiatives to reduce the sale or use of disposable plastic bags. Denmark and Wales have used plastic bag taxes successfully.

England has used voluntary plastic bag schemes. Supermarkets have begun to reduce their plastic bag use and these food stores are giving out fewer bags to their customers. An initial voluntary reduction in bag use has not been successful in England. England increased its use of plastic bag consumption by 4 percent last year.

Nation 2010 2011 2012 % change(2011-2012)
England 6.29bn 6.77bn 7.06bn +4%
Wales 0.35bn 0.27bn 0.07bn -76%*

Ireland has used a minimum charge for its plastic bags. Bag use in Ireland has fallen by 90 percent. Italy introduced a law that prohibited the distribution of single use plastic bags but later allowed for composted bags. The European Commission adopted a proposal that required member states to reduce their use of light weight plastic bags.

Research Groups and Plastic Bag Use

There have been several research proposals that have studied the effects of charging a fee for plastic bags. The following results have been gained from the previous studies:

1. The Welsh government conducted several research studies to try to understand the effects of charging a fee for single use plastic bags. The conclusions indicated that a consumer who is charged for a plastic bag is less likely to throw this bag away as litter.

2. A research behavioural psychologist evaluated the impact of the Welsh scheme and concluded that charging a price for a shopping plastic bag would reduce its continued wasteful use. A shopper who pays for a plastic single use bag is more likely to bring the same plastic bag for use the second time that the shopper returns to a store. The same bag is less likely to be thrown away as litter as well.

3. The government’s advisory board on waste (WRAP) concluded that wasteful use of plastic bio hazardous bags would fall when each bag is paid for independently by a shopper. Fewer purchased plastic bags would be thrown out as litter and these bags would end up as compost and not litter.

4. A British Retail Consortium gave information about consumer habits and single use non bio degradable shopping bags. Stores have began to reduce handing out environmentally hazardous plastic bags.

5. A member of the break the bag habit consumer advocacy group was included in the government’s study on the effects of reducing consumer use of single use plastic bags. Fewer bags were said to be thrown out when a consumer was not directly given extra shopping bags. The break the bag consumer group focused on breaking a litter habit and is a part of a campaign to protect rural England.

6. Recyclers and industry groups were advisers for a plastic bag tax proposal. Recyclers were able to add certain data about the effects of recycling and how environmental waste is reduced by adding a requirement for certain types of consumer trash.

Aims of Plastic Bag Charge

There are a number of aims that the government proposes will result from a bag charge. There is an assumption that the number of bags that are used in England will be reduced and that the bags that were purchased will be reused. A reduction in littering is proposed as well. Recycling is seen as a future aim for adding a bag charge and this type of community habit can become a secondary gain. A reduction in littering is a central aim for a new bag fee and a reduction in carbon emissions is a second outcome. Having fewer single use plastic bags in circulation is a main proposal.

Effects of Litter on a Community

Litter can have a direct effect on a community by impacting a sense of community cohesion and trust. A messy environment affects how a resident feels about other people in the community. Rules look like they have been broken because of litter. Litter can lead to other problems and social trust tends to erode. Whether to trust people can be inferred from their environment.

Carbon Emissions and Plastic Bags

Carbon emissions can be generated from plastic bags. Plastic shopping bags that carry a month’s worth of shopping or 82 percent of single use plastic bags are responsible for carbon emissions equivalent to 1.578 kg. This is carbon dioxide equal to those travelling 5 miles in the average petrol car. The research figures for a link between carbon emissions and plastic bags have been in question. The fact that carbon emissions do come from excessive use of plastic bags is not questioned, however. Carbon emissions are those environmental pollutants that are hazardous by products coming from plastic bag materials. Carbon emissions have been directly linked to ozone layer erosion and global warming, according to some researchers and environmentalists.

Design of Proposed Plastic Bag Scheme

Potential environmental gains associated with each objective should be undertaken. The extent to which the charge and the type of bag would create the gains intended needs to be further studied. Any associated risks and any wider impacts need to be included in any proposal as well. An analysis of these concerns can further determine if a plastic bag tax is robust and accurate.

Reducing Plastic Bag Use

Re using single use plastic bags appears to be the more effective method of reducing their environmental impact. There is strong evidence from environmental psychology research that charging a fee for plastic bag use reduces wasteful behaviours and littering. A charge for a single unit plastic bag is a habit disruptor that forces shoppers to selectively chose to not throw the bag away as litter. Field experiments have concluded that supermarket shoppers receive persuasive normative messages or prompts that reduce plastic bag use by 20 to 40 percent. Retail staff can be trained in supermarket stores to prompt customers to reuse their bags or to not throw a bag away that can be reused a second time.

Design of Proposed Plastic Bag Scheme and Benefits

Successful behavioural change policies have proposed exemptions in England for bio degradable bags and exemptions for small retailers. Bio degradable bags are those that can be decomposed by natural compost methods. Bio degradable bags do not have a damaging environmental effect and can be thrown out and subsequently disposed of. Small retailers are wanting their shopping bags exempted since small retailers do not generate as many environmentally harmful bags as large retail stores.

Fewer Plastic Bags and Environmental Benefits

Fewer bags mean that there are fewer plastic bags that can be thrown out as litter. Using fewer plastic bags can create a recycling habit among patron customers who bring their own shopping bags with them as they shop. Shopping bags can be purchased for a small fee and the same plastic bag can be brought with a customer the second time in the store. A patron can bring their own more permanent shopping carrier as well. This new habit allows a consumer to use a more environmentally friendly shopping carrier and to stop littering with a free throw away plastic shopping bag.

Confusion about Exemptions

Several critics of a recent proposal to allow exemptions for plastic bag use indicate that exemptions can create unnecessary consumer confusion. Smaller retailers that are exempt from plastic bag taxes would make the general law about plastic bag tax complex and confusing, according to some critics of this proposal.

Plastic Bag Material and the Environment

The best bag material involves complex decisions and a possible impact on the marine environment. The production, transport and disposal of different types of bags has various environmental consequences, according to some researchers. Thin plastic bags have a lower environmental impact in terms of emissions. Carbon impacts of various types of bags have been studied in order to determine where a carbon consumption reduction should occur.

Type of carrier bag Carbon impact if not re-used(kg CO2, for a month’s worth of bags) Number of times used to have less environmental impact than a single-use plastic bag used once and thrown away
Thin single-use High-density polyethylene (HDPE) plastic bag 2.08
HDPE bagwith a prodegradant additive (‘Oxo-biodegradable’) 2.25
Starch bag[60] 4.69 2
Paper bag 5.52 3
Low-density polyethylene (LDPE) bag —thin bag for life 6.92 4
Non-woven PP bag—Thicker bag for life 21.51 11
Cotton bag 271.53 131

Exemptions and Small Retailers

A life cycle analysis has indicated that a single use plastic bag that is reused three times reduces the amount of carbon emissions impact. A recycled plastic bag that has been recycled three times has a significantly lower carbon emissions impact than that of a typical single use plastic bag. A charge for a plastic bag is a part of this plan for recycling and reusing plastic bags. Retailers have begun to use paper bags and paper bags are not a part of an environmental impact problem.

An increase in the use of paper bags in supermarkets or retail stores was not determined to be an environmental concern. Paper bags are exempt under most carrier bag levies. Paper bag use has a small carbon emissions impact but this impact appears to be currently negligible. Paper bags are determined to not be substantial for the marine environment or long lasting litter and these bags are generally exempt under the charge due. There is currently little data on the environmental impact of using paper bags instead of plastic bags by retailers.

Wider Environmental Benefits

Pro environmental groups seem to be moving a plastic bag tax proposal forward. Economic psychology indicates that a consumer who pays for a plastic bag may feel that a bag can be disposed of or not. A negative reaction to a plastic bag charge could result and some consumers may use a plastic bag tax to justify littering. Reusing and recycling behaviours are additional more positive results. Reusing and recycling have wider environmental benefits. Bio degradable bags are possible exemptions to the proposed environmental rules since bio degradable materials do not harmfully interact with the environment.

Bio Degradable Plastic Bags

There are two types of bio degradable bags. One is a bio plastic that is made from corn starch and blended with standard plastics. Oxo degradable plastic is made from naphtha that can be broken down by micro organisms. Standards for bio plastics have yet to be determined. There is some controversy about allowing this type of shopping bag to be exempt without knowing further about its environmental impact. An exemption for bio degradable bags may have been rushed, according to some critics. Exempting this material from a plastic bag tax has some advocates concerned about an unnecessary risk.

Type of carrier bag Landfill Incineration Mechanical recycling Composting
Thin single-use High-density polyethylene (HDPE) plastic bag
HDPE bagwith a prodegradant additive (‘Oxo-biodegradable’)
Starch bag
Paper bag
Low-density polyethylene (LDPE) bag—thin bag for life
Non-woven PP bag-Thicker bag for life
Cotton bag

Use of Tax Funds

Funds generated from plastic bag taxes can be used for environmental charities. Transparent reporting should set clear rules for retailers. These retail rules should be posted prominently in stores and a retail store should indicate the particular charity selected. Sanctions can be imposed for retailers that have a conflict of interest about which charities are supported. Local shoppers can help decide where the plastic bag tax funds are going. The treasury tends to take VAT from the proceeds charged for a plastic bag and this percentage (under 1p) would be used on new environmental programmes and to cover the costs of monitoring the effectiveness of the scheme.


Keenpac provides this Summary, “A plastic bag tax can be used to fund local environmental programmes and to cover the cost of monitoring a scheme. Consumers who are charged a fee for a plastic bag may respond positively by reducing subsequent negative behaviours. Charging a plastic bag tax can reduce littering and can increase the use of recycling plastic carrier bags in supermarkets and retail stores. Retailers will need to submit data on bag reuse and monitor how the charge affects wider behaviours. The results of a plastic bag tax scheme could create a wider and positive environmental impact.”

Jo Davies has spent 15yrs in the Packaging Industry and helps businesses adjust to consumer demands