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England becomes the latest EU country to introduce plastic bag charges

England has become the latest European country to introduce plastic bag charges in an effort to minimize its impact on the environment, reduce litter and protect wildlife. From 5th October 2015, a 5 pence (7 cent) charge has been placed on polyethylene bags. Up to now they were given out for free after shoppers bought their goods at most stores. An average of 7.6 billion plastic bags per year has been administered to English consumers up to now, which equates to 61,000 Tonnes and 140 bags per person.

A 5p charge has been placed on plastic bags in England, which have been provided for free up until now. Image courtesy of www.gov.uk

A 5p charge has been placed on plastic bags in England, which have been provided for free up until now. Image courtesy of www.gov.uk

Four pence of the 5p charge goes to charity while the remaining 1p goes to the Government Treasury. However there are several limitations attached to the bag levy. Retailers employing fewer than 250 staff are exempt as well as bags containing items like uncooked meat, prescription medicine, certain fresh produce and unwrapped convenience food. Such exemptions have been criticised for being overly complicated and many fear they will make the ban less effective.

The UK countries – Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – have already introduced a carrier bag levy, but their regulations have been more straightforward. By doing so, people have been encouraged to bring their own bags or choose the bags-for-life available in stores. Wales began charging 5p for carrier bags in 2011, which has resulted in a 71% reduction in their usage since then. Northern Ireland introduced a similar levy in 2013 and Scotland followed in 2014, which has meant a decrease in millions of bags in circulation.

Promotion signage for England’s new charge on plastic bags. Image courtesy of www.gov.uk

Promotion signage for England’s new charge on plastic bags. Image courtesy of www.gov.uk

A landmark European Parliament ruling in April 2015 means that all member states must achieve an 80% reduction in polyethylene bag use by 2025. While polyethylene can be recycled, waste collection services vary throughout regions and countries, which leads to confusion. Many plastic bags and products end up in landfills or marine environments, causing severe and long-term pollution. It is estimated that 100 billion plastic carrier bags are used across Europe per year, with 8 billion ending up as litter.

Denmark and Finland are leading the way when it comes to phasing out plastic carrier bags. On average only four plastic bags per person are used in each of these countries annually. Ireland has experienced a successful bag levy scheme since 2002. Initially a charge of 15 cent was placed on each plastic bag which had an immediate effect and in 2007 the cost was raised to 22 cent. In 2013, Italy passed a law banning the sale of non-biodegradable plastic bags. The country also ensured that any bags produced for stores have to display what they are made of and how they can be reused and disposed of.

Efforts to curb plastic bag use may seem small when compared with the entire waste stream. With more EU countries making positive changes however, this will make a huge difference to the state of our collective environment.