As unlikely as it sounds, the 5p tax on single use plastic carrier bags is one tax scheme that is successful all round; massive reduction in single use bags, millions to charity and a reduction in the number of plastic carrier bags found on the sea bed. It is refreshing to see a genuinely successful, uncontroversial tax policy in action. HMRC have really put it in the back of the net with this one.

It has worked – we use less single use carrier bags

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs published their updated research document ‘Single-use plastic carrier bags charge: data in England for 2016 to 2017′ at the end of July. And its great news – an 83% reduction in the number of single use plastic bags sold by the largest seven supermarkets since 2014. These are Asda, Marks and Spencer’s, Sainsbury, Tesco, The Co-operative Group, Morrisons and Waitrose.

Per customer, this works at out at 25 single use 5p carrier bags in 2016-17, compared to 140 bags in the previous year before – an enormous reduction. 5% of retailers that were obliged to report on their single plastic bag sales now use paper bags, or no bags.

Charity benefits

Businesses do not legally have to provide information on the good causes that the 5p bag tax supports. It is not part of a VAT or Corporation tax return. Based on the voluntarily supplied information, 71% of businesses collectively donated £66million to good causes. That equates to 4p of every 5p carrier bag bought.

DEFRA’s report breaks down this figure into the type of ‘good cause’ this money went to: “68 retailers donated the following to good causes:

  • approximately £33 million went to local causes chosen by customers or staff
  • approximately £20 million went to good causes relating to charity or voluntary sectors, environment and health
  • approximately £13 million went to a combination of good causes (including research, education, arts, heritage and sports)”

That is a substantial amount of money put back into our communities through the work of a diverse group of charities and organisations.

Sainsbury’s leads in a different direction

When you delve further into the figures, Sainsbury’s sold over 500 million fewer 5p single use carrier bags than Tescos (the supermarket that sold the most). This is because they took a different track when this legislation was introduced. The definition of a single use carrier bag is that it is 0.07mm thick. Sainsbury’s only use this thickness of bag for their online deliveries and replaced all the in store bags with thicker, more re-usable options. These do not fall under the spectrum of the reporting requirements of the 5p bag tax and so are not included in the data collected by DEFRA.

Tesco are now trialling three stores with no 5p single use bags, but a stronger, thicker 10p option. There are a variety of different options for government and retailers as we carry this good practice into the future.

It’s making the sea cleaner

The sheer scale of human pollution on the planet can be difficult to comprehend and it can feel like there is no point trying to improve things yourself because the problem is so vast. But excellent news from a scientific report published in ‘Science of the Total Environment’. The report is based on research over a 25 year period, where scientists have trawled the bottom of the seabed in and counted how many items of plastic pollution they found per square kilometer.

They surveyed an area from Norway to Ireland, by way of Germany and France. Their paper concludes that there has been a 30% drop in the number of plastic, single use carrier bags littering the seabed since 2010, when they first started recording the number of single use carrier bags. Ireland and Denmark introduced a tax on these items in 2003 and most other European countries followed suit, with England being the last in 2015. The report makes the link between the impact of these policies in action and the reduction in seabed litter of this nature.

The lead author of the paper, from the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science, Thomas Maes, said: “The fewer bags we use, the fewer we can lose, the fewer we can put into the environment. If we all work together towards a better environment, we can make changes. A lot of people live in doom, but … don’t give up yet.”

For everyone moved to action after viewing David Attenborough’s reports of our seas’ human pollution, this is a very optimistic outcome. It’s not a done deal, we actually can make a positive impact on our planet’s future using our existing tax system.

Now, don’t forget your reusable shoppers!