Plastic not fantastic: Britons ditching single-use bags

Britain has already banned microbeads in rinse-off personal care products and restricted the sale of plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds



By Prasun Sonwalkar

Published: Sun 31 Jul 2022, 10:35 PM

It is the nature of the beast that news usually focuses on the negative, which makes decision-makers and citizens aware of what is going wrong, so that things can be set right. It is not often that positive developments receive the same attention in news discourse. In these days of slick news management, when much happens on various fronts on some days, spin doctors believe that such days are “good to bury bad news,’’ so that news that shows officials, institutions or sections of society in a bad light is not highlighted. There are also times when positive developments pass off unnoticed, not because of less interest, but because other high-voltage stuff is happening, such as the election of Britain’s next prime minister, Commonwealth Games, a high-profile libel case, major crime news, or thousands of victims of a historic contaminated blood scandal getting compensation.

For example, buried in a new cache of official data last week were figures of how raising the price of single-use carrier bag from 5 pence to 10 pence has cut plastic use, transforming how Britons shop. Billions of harmful plastic bags have been stopped from blighting towns and countryside due to the levy of single-use carrier bag charge, the figures show. The 5 pence charge was introduced in supermarkets in 2015; since then, usage at the main retailers has dropped by a staggering 97 per cent. Meanwhile, over £200 million has been voluntarily donated by retailers to good causes in that time. As a result of the charge, the average person in England now buys around three single-use carrier bags in a year from the main supermarkets, compared with around 140 in 2014. The charge was last year increased to 10 pence and extended to all businesses. This has helped further bring the number of bags used down by over 20% from 627 million in 2019-20 to 496 million in 2021-22.

This is a huge drop from the 7.6 billion such plastic bags used in 2014 before the charge was introduced. Call such figures baby steps or green shoots of environment recovery, but growing awareness of the damage caused by modern lifestyles is leading to a significant drop in the use of plastic in everyday life, and may well contribute to wider efforts to protect the environment at the global level. Britain is among several countries to have banned or levied a charge on single-use plastic bags. Several opinion polls suggest growing awareness of the need to limit the use of plastic in daily life, particularly due to the widely-watched nature programmes of the iconic natural historian David Attenborough.

Under new rules, for the 2021 to 2022 reporting year, large retailers were required to charge a minimum of 5 pence (before 21 May 2021) or 10 pence (after 21 May 2021) per bag for carrier bags that are all of the following: unused – it is new and has not already been used for sold goods to be taken away or delivered; plastic and up to 70 microns thick; has handles, an opening and is not sealed; and are sold by a large retailer who employs 250 or more full-time employees (not just in retail roles). Some bags are exempt from the charge, although retailers can choose to charge for them, including plastic bags that are solely used to contain certain items, including uncooked meat, poultry and fish; unwrapped food for animal or human consumption; unwrapped loose seeds; flowers; unwrapped blades; and prescription medicine. Retailers do not have to charge if the bag only contains these items but must charge if other items are added.

Other related efforts to deal with the problem are also on, such as introducing what officials call a ‘world-leading plastic packaging tax’, and a deposit return scheme intended to ensure that billions more drinks bottles and cans are returned to shops and recycled. Britain has already banned microbeads in rinse-off personal care products and restricted the sale of plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds. Also in the pipeline following public consultation is banning single-use plastic cutlery, plates and certain types of polystyrene cups, besides analyzing evidence on other problematic single-use plastics, such as wet wipes.

All this is in the right direction, but the scale of the plastics-driven pollution is such that the official claim that charging for shopping bags has ‘turned the tide’ on plastic waste may be made too early.

Plastic in itself is incredibly useful. It has an excellent strength-to-weight ratio; it is durable and inexpensive, making it the material of choice for most disposable medical tools, equipment and packaging. The big problem is single-use plastics and the quantities in which they are used. A plastic bag, for example, is used for a short duration, but could take 100 to 300 years to fragment. Despite much innovation in recycling technology, a big question mark remains; not all plastics can be recycled, including some resins. Even for some plastics that can be partly recycled, the process can use a lot of energy, and plastic cannot be recycled indefinitely, unlike glass or aluminium. Every time plastic is recycled, its quality decreases, so on average a plastic product can only be recycled two to three times before it is no longer used.

A large number of experts, organisations and governments across the globe are engaged in dealing with the scourge of plastic pollution. The figures are stark: every day approximately 8 million pieces of plastic pollution find their way into oceans; 12 million tonnes of plastic are poured into the ocean every year; scientists have recently discovered microplastics embedded deep in the Arctic ice; plastics consistently make up 80 per cent of all marine debris studied; there may now be around 5.25 trillion macro and microplastic pieces floating in the open ocean, weighing up to 269,000 tonnes; 100,000 marine mammals and turtles and 1 million sea birds are killed by marine plastic pollution annually.

The writer is a senior journalist based in the UK


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