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Let's talk plastic bags - Denis the Dustcart Blog

Published: 1 July 2022

Plastic Free July Plastic Free July

In his regular feature, Denis the Dustcart talks about plastic bags and how reducing is always preferable to recycling. That’s what Plastic-free July is all about.

You can follow Denis on his Facebook page to keep up with information about Recycling issues.

You will, by now, hopefully, know that putting plastic bags in your green bin means Exeter City Council can get them turned back into new bags for use in its litter bins and sweeping barrows.

You will also no doubt be aware that supermarkets now take soft plastics for processing. What becomes of the plastic accepted by these schemes depends on what systems and contracts each supermarket chain has in place.

It’s important to say that neither of these options should be used as an excuse to continue buying single-use carrier bags. Same goes for compostable bags, which present a whole other waste challenge (i.e. they aren’t recyclable and aren’t even able to be processed in food waste collections in Devon, which use anaerobic digestion rather than composting to break the waste down.)

Reducing is always preferable to recycling. That’s what Plastic-free July is all about.

And reducing is what we’ve all been doing in England since retailers were first required to charge for carrier bags in 2015.

This charge started out at 5p per bag and last year it went up to 10p. So far there is no concrete data on how the increase has affected usage, but it was anticipated to see a reduction by 70-80% of bags purchased from small- to medium-sized businesses.

If the data bears this out, it will be significant given the dramatic downward trend in the number of plastic bags used in England since the 5p charge was introduced.
In the period April 2018 to March 2019 the main 7 supermarkets sold 549 million single-use plastic bags in England.

This may seem like a lot at first glance (well, it is a lot), but when you consider that in the period 2017 to 2018 the number was up at 1 billion single-use plastic bags…well, it doesn’t sound quite so bad. 490 million fewer single-use plastic bags were consumed than in the previous year – a 47% decrease.

Great news. But the initial 5p plastic bag charge was introduced in 2015, so we need to look farther back to see how much of an effect the charge really had.

According to WRAP, 12.4 billion single use carrier bags were consumed via the main retailers in England in 2006. In 2014 it was down to 7.64 billion.

By 2018/2019, as we now know, this had dropped to 549 million. We had reduced our single-use carrier bag consumption by 92.8% since the year before the 5p charge was introduced. In fact, we used only 4.4% of the number of bags we used in 2006.

To put it simply, the number of bags each person in the population bought from the main retailers per year was:

  • 243 in 2006
  • 140 in 2014
  • 24 during 2016 to 2017
  • 19 during 2017 to 2018
  • 10 during 2018 to 2019

According to the government, by 2021 people in England were using just 4 bags each per year.

That was before the 10p charge was introduced.

Fingers crossed that the projected drop since then turns out to be accurate.

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