How the plastic bag charge changed Scotland

Written by Tom Freeman on 30 October 2015 in Comment

Despite concerns over the policy's introduction in England, Scotland's experience should reassure those south of the border

England has become the last UK nation to introduce a 5p charge for plastic bags, after the number of them handed out by supermarkets in England rose by 200 million last year.

Although polls showed a majority of people in England find the idea “reasonable”, it was labelled “madness” by some of the more reactionary elements of the media.

Meanwhile in Scotland, last year saw a 650 million drop in plastic bag use after the country became an early adopter of the charge.


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Although full year data is not yet available, the interim conclusion from retailers shows a reduction of around 80 per cent, with funds of around £6.7m being donated to good causes as a result of the charge.

It is thought the net carbon saving of the charge is equivalent to more than 2,500 tonnes of CO2 every year.

Environment Secretary Richard Lochhead said the policy had been a “major success” in changing habits.

“I thank Scotland for embracing this policy and showing we’re serious about tackling litter, reducing waste and creating a cleaner, greener environment for everyone to enjoy. It’s now becoming second nature to shoppers to reuse their carrier bags and hopefully to think more about our impact on the environment,” he said.

The data comes from Scotland’s Carrier Bag Commitment, an agreement to disclose information on the impact of the charge and use of the money raised.

Boots, Morrisons, the Co-operative and Waitrose indicated a reduction of 80 per cent, with Asda reporting a drop of 90 per cent, while Sainsbury’s has witnessed 100 per cent reduction of single-use carrier bags asit no longer offers them to shoppers.

Morrisons and Asda said over £700,000 each had been raised for good causes, while Co-operative Food in Scotland has showcased around 1,000 community groups, projects and good causes will benefit through grants of between £200 and £2,500 as part of more than £750,000 raised.

Divisional Managing Director John McNeill said: “The Co-operative is a community retailer with a strong heritage and commitment to the environment and to supporting its local communities.

“The Co-op shares the aspiration of reducing the number of single-use carrier bags in use. It is also encouraging shoppers to further reduce their reliance on single-use carriers by donating profits from its reusable bags to good causes too.”

The figures have been welcomed by environmental campaigners. Lang Banks, director of WWF Scotland, said: “As well as removing millions of bags from circulation, it’s also great that millions of pounds have been raised for good causes across the country.

“Before the charge Scotland consumed a staggering 800 million carrier bags every year, many of which ended up polluting our environment and threatening wildlife. As an additional benefit, less resource use also means fewer carbon emissions. So, it’s really great to see just how successful this initiative has been.”

Scottish shoppers may have found it took some getting used to, but clearly they have changed the way they shop, and may offer some encouragement to their English counterparts. 

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