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The Plastic Carrier Bag Charge: 5 Years On

The UK Plastic Carrier Bag Charge: 5 Years On

On the 5th of October, it will be 5 years since the plastic carrier bag charge was first implemented in the UK. The scheme was introduced to reduce the demand for single-use plastic bags and to increase donations to charitable causes. We spoke with our friends at WRAP to find out how the charge has impacted our environment. Read on to find out more!

plastic carrier bag anniversary

But First… What Exactly Is The Environmental Damage Caused by Plastic Bags?

1. Harm To Domestic Animals

The most common form of damage is when domestic animals, curious wildlife, and livestock eat plastic bags, then suffer from critical health problems as a consequence. In India this has been a really serious problem for cows, causing numerous deaths from plastic bags drifting onto their grazing grounds. According to NPR: “Many of the cows injured by this plastic plague are found to have 50 or more plastic bags in their digestive tracts.”

What is incredibly concerning is that when an animal swallows a plastic bag, it will have to endure an agonizing and prolonged death caused by the obstruction in their intestines. Plastic bags also give the sensation of being full, which can lead to death from starvation. The animal will also take on the poisonous chemicals that the plastic bag has absorbed in its lifetime.

livestock eating plastic carrier bag

2. Harm To Aquatic Species

Moving to the oceans, sea turtles that are already subject to the destruction of their habitat and poaching, are also some of the biggest victims of plastic bag pollution. This is because they often confuse plastic bags for jellyfish, their favourite food. Research from the University of Queensland recently determined that out of the global population of sea turtles, approximately 52 percent have swallowed plastic debris.

turtle eating plastic carrier bag

3. Clogged Sewage Systems

In urban areas, discarded plastic bags often gather in runoff water ending up in storm sewers. Here, they are collated and clumped together, eventually blocking the flow of water. When runoff water can not drain as it should, it causes huge problems for the surrounding community. Blocked sewers means flooded roads, closed access, damaged cars, defaced buildings, devastating property… the list goes on!

blocked sewer water

The Plastic Carrier Bag: Extent of the Problem

It is hard to determine how many plastic bags pollute the planet at this current moment. However, researchers estimate that 500 billion are used globally each year. What’s worse is that they are commonly only used once, disposed of as rubbish, and rarely ever recycled.

Plastic bags take decades, even centuries to break down which is why this form of pollution is so long-lasting and problematic. In fact, plastic bags circulating around our planet may never completely biodegrade.

global plastic pollution

So what has been the impact since the plastic carrier bag charge was introduced?

In 2014, England’s top supermarket retailers issued 7.64 billion single-use carrier bags in total. This figure dropped to just 0.6 billion between October 2015 and April 2016. Defra claims that a total of £58.5m had been donated to charitable causes between 2017 and 2018.

According to the UK government:

“Sales of plastic carrier bags have fallen by more than 95%. The latest data shows a 59% drop in plastic carrier bag sales in the last year alone in main supermarkets, with charities receiving nearly £180 million since 2015. The average person in England now buys just four bags a year from the main supermarket retailers, compared with 10 last year and 140 in 2014.”

Environment Secretary George Eustice stated:

“We have all seen first hand the devastating impact that plastic bags have on the environment, littering our beautiful countryside, and threatening the world’s marine life. I am committed to driving this progress further and I hope this continues to inspire similar action across the globe.”


A spokesperson from WRAP told us…

“The introduction of the 5p carrier bag charge has had a significant impact. By getting into the habit of re-using a shopping bag, you’re reducing the amount of plastic you consume, lowering the negative environmental impact of each bag. Fewer bags means fewer carbon emissions.

Recycling plastic carrier bags is easy and we can all make a difference. There are carrier bag collection points at the larger stores of most major supermarkets. Visit Recycle Now for information on what can be accepted and to find a collection point near you.

If you’re confused by plastic and would like some clarity on how best to reduce, re-use, and recycle plastic, visit the Clear on Plastics website who provide answers to the most common questions we have on this often complicated topic.”

say no to plastic carrier bags

What is next for the UK’s battle with plastic waste?

The governments plans to action:

  1. A ban on microbeads
  2. Increased recycling of single-use drinks containers through the introduction of a deposit return scheme
  3. Measures to come into force this October including the supply of plastic cotton buds, straws and stirrers to be banned.
  4. From April 2021 the 5p plastic bag charge will increase to 10p.

plastic straws


To read more about environmental issues, click here.

To get inspired by Plastic Free July, click here. 

To learn more about recycling, click here.


Tina Hidderley

Tina Hidderley

Community Manager

Tina has been a member of the Preloved family for over 6 years. Her interests include spending quality time with her family, promoting responsible pet ownership, and Netflix bingeing.