The government is to double the charge for single-use plastic carrier bags in England from 5p to 10p and end the exemption for smaller shops from April 2021, as it steps up efforts to tackle plastic pollution.
Since the introduction of the charge in October 2015, shoppers have used billions fewer thin-gauge plastic shopping bags.
Recent government data revealed that the current 5p levy, which applies to any retailer employing 250 or more people, had led to a 95% cut in plastic bag use in England’s major supermarkets since 2015.
Announcing the doubling of the charge and its extension following a consultation, the environment secretary, George Eustice, said: “We have all seen the devastating impact plastic bags have on the oceans and on precious marine wildlife, which is why we are taking bold and ambitious action to tackle this issue head-on.
“The UK is already a world leader in this global effort, and our carrier bag charge has been hugely successful in taking billions of harmful plastic bags out of circulation. But we want to go further by extending this to all retailers so we can continue to cut unnecessary waste.”
The 5p charge was introduced in England to help reduce litter, protect wildlife and influence consumer behaviour after the number of bags given out by the seven major supermarkets rose by 200m in 2014. At the time, consumers were using more than 7.6bn bags a year, amounting to 61,000 tonnes of plastic.
Now the government is under pressure to deal with stronger so-called “bags for life” amid evidence that consumers are treating them like single-use bags – using them once and then throwing them away.
Sam Chetan-Welsh, a political campaigner at Greenpeace, said: “By raising the price of plastic bags again, the government is taking a small step in the right direction, but by now they should be taking great strides. Reinstating the previous price of carrier bags but not taking action on bags for life is only looking at one part of the problem.
“The government should be setting legally binding targets now for retailers to reduce single-use plastics by 50% by 2025. And it should be working to make sure the big-brand plastic producers take responsibility for disposing of their waste. If they’re increasing costs for shoppers, ministers really have no excuse not to increase the costs for the companies that are responsible for the escalating volumes of single-use plastic packaging in the first place.”
Introducing paper bags across all of its 494 stores would save on 90m plastic bags annually, the equivalent of 3,510 tonnes of plastic, it said. Waitrose is planning a similar trial.
Anecdotal evidence suggests the drive to reduce single-use plastics in the UK has stalled since the outbreak of coronavirus, because of the increased use of masks, gloves, visors and wipes and because recycling rates have plummeted during lockdown.
Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland run their own schemes to reduce plastic bag use.