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English Shoppers Will Finally Start Paying for Plastic Bags

A plastic bag in London. Image via Flickr user Julian Stallabrass (cc).

It’s official: The tides are turning against plastic bags. Next Monday, English shoppers will be charged 5p (or roughly 10 U.S. cents) for any single-use plastic bag.


The 5p charge will be issued by the Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs, and will apply to any large businesses with more than 250 employees. Though this leaves many small and medium-sized shops exempt from the charge, it’s a big improvement for England, where plastic bag use has been increasing for five years running. According to the WRAP, 7.6 billion single-use plastic bags were issued by English supermarkets in 2014. That’s 140 bags person in a single year—combined, all those bags would weigh 61,000 tons.

Many in England eagerly awaited some kind of plastic bag reduction. Image via Twitter user Dr Andrew Furber, Director of Public Health at Wakefield Council in Leeds, Yorkshire.

To put those numbers in context, the Earth Policy Institute (EPI) has said that more than a trillion plastic bags are used each year worldwide—or 2 million every minute. Last year, the European Union voted to reduce plastic bag use by 80 percent by 2019, though the British government is one of the last in both the EU and the United Kingdom to enforce plastic bag reduction in any capacity. EPI also reports that a memo on the EU’s “proposal noted that ‘plastic bags have been found in stomachs of several endangered marine species,’ including various turtles and porpoises, and 94 percent of North Sea birds.”

The charge is part of the United Kingdom’s plan to move to a “zero waste economy.” Unusually, the charge is not a tax—retailers will be given the opportunity to donate the proceeds to a cause of their choice. Not a bad model, though it will be interesting to see if a ban will one day be feasible there. In July, Hawaii became the first U.S. state to ban plastic bags, following in the footsteps of major American cities like San Francisco and a slew of African countries, including Rwanda, where non-biodegradable polythene bags have been illegal since 2008.

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