The introduction of a 5p carrier bag charge in Wales has reduced single bag use by up to 96%, but use is rising in England, making it more likely that a charge will be introduced there.

Wales' plastic bag use down...

Retailers in Wales have indicated that the 5p bag charge, introduced by the Welsh government on 1 October last year, has reduced single bag use by up to 96%, and is now supported by 70% of people in Wales, up from 59% last September.

Just 17% oppose the charge. People generally say they are willing to pay a five pence charge if the money goes to charity.

The findings come from figures released yesterday, provided by retailers and the British Retail Consortium, and from behavioural research undertaken by Cardiff University, which monitored attitudes and behaviours to carrier bag use just before the introduction of the charge and again six months later. 

This is the first, eagerly-awaited, research released on the effect of the charge,

It shows that the number of shoppers who said they had used their own bags on their last supermarket trip rose from 61% in September 2011 to 82% by April 2012.

Retailers expressed similar positive results, with food retailers reporting up to a 96% reduction in bag use, fashion shops reporting up to 75% reduction and home improvement retailers reporting a 95% reduction. Mobile phone shops reported a reduction of up to 85%. The lowest level of reduction was in the food service sector, at up to a 45% reduction in bag use.

The percentage of people who “strongly agree" that charging 5p for plastic bag is a good idea rose from 44% before the charge's introduction to 53% six months later.

...while English use rises

Coincidentally, WRAP has released figures today relating to the whole of 2011, which show a rise in plastic bag use of 5.4% in the whole of the UK, compared with the previous year.

That's 8 billion bags, or 321 per household, almost one for every day of the year.

The WRAP figures reveal a 22% fall in Wales (the plastic bag charge only applied for the last quarter of that year). Correspondingly, there was a 7.5% rise in England, an 8.1% rise in Northern Ireland, and no change in Scotland.

Since 2010 there has been a reversal in a previous downward trend in single use plastic bags, which fell from 12,174 billion in 2006 to an all-time low of 7,208 billion in 2009-10. Over the last two years the trend has been upwards again.

A similar pattern is also seen in the proportion of recycled materials used in plastic bags, which fell until 2010 and has started rising since then. Although there has been an overall 51% reduction in the amount of virgin polymer used in the manufacture of all carrier bags (including re-usable ‘bags for life’) since 2006, between 2010 and 2011 there was an 11% increase.

The Westminster Government is still considering whether to introduce a charge for plastic bag use in England, and has been waiting for the above results from the Welsh initiative. These overwhelmingly positive results make it more likely that they will. It was last discussed in the House of Lords on 28 May.

There is provision in the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 for the introduction of such a charge.

...and Scotland mulls the idea

North of the border, Scotland is now considering implementing a charge for plastic bag use similar to that in Wales, with proposals being put out to consultation.

Scottish Green MSP Alison Johnstone said: "The evidence from Wales is that a small charge is easy to implement and has a huge impact on shopper's behaviour, which can only be a good thing for litter in our towns and for our wildlife, seas and beaches."

The Northern Ireland Assembly is also considering introducing a charge from April 2013.

The Republic of Ireland introduced a charge of 15 euro cents (12p) per bag in March 2002, which led to a 95% reduction in plastic bag litter. However, over the same period there has reportedly been a tenfold increase in black bag use, since previously people would use plastic bags taken from a shop in which to put their rubbish.

43% in England want a charge

The Cardiff University research also found that in the period since the charge's introduction in Wales, In England a representative sample of the population reported a small increase in approval for the charge from 39% to 43%.

Yet while the number of people who always take their own bags when shopping rose in Wales from 27% (42% in supermarkets) before the introduction of the charge to 43% (64% in supermarkets) afterwards, in England the proportion fell from 27% to 22%.

Interestingly, the Cardiff University study also looked at how environmentally aware and waste conscious people thought they were. Before the plastic bag charge was introduced, attitudes were more or less the same in England and Wales. But six months later the Welsh sample had increased by 6% and the English sample had decreased by 7%.

There was no support found for the idea that a carrier bag charge might lead to improvements in other waste-related behaviours, but there was a small but significant increase in knowledge about reducing household waste following the introduction of the charge in Wales.

These results are consistent with findings from other countries where a similar charge has been introduced.

Story: David Thorpe, News Editor