England has finally joined the rest of the UK in imposing a tax on non-reusable plastic bags. Wales was the first UK country to adopt such a tax in 2011, copying Ireland, which has had one in place since 2002.

From now on, anyone purchasing a bag in an English supermarket must pay five pence, in an attempt to tackle the pandemic of the 8.5 billion bags issued in the UK in 2014. In England, the average person uses 11.7 bags a month compared with two bags in Wales.

But the new law (the Single Use Carrier Bags Charges (England) Order 2015) is not as strong as the ones in the three other UK principalities. This has led Alice Ellison, the British Retail Consortium’s environment policy adviser, to say that “the charge will not deliver the same environmental impact as the rest of the UK”. The BRC is the lead trade association for the retail sector.

Only retail companies employing over 250 people have to charge for single-use bags, whereas elsewhere the number is ten. This means that most non-supermarket retailers can carry on issuing bags free of charge.

Ellison has called the England plastic bag charge “a missed opportunity” as it will not “will not deliver the same environmental benefit as in the rest of the UK”.

“Carrier bag numbers for Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland indicate that a carrier bag charge can trigger significant reductions in carrier bag use,” she said, calling the English version “unnecessarily complicated and not consistent with the simple approach taken elsewhere in the UK”.

“The charge leaves retailers with complex messages to communicate to shoppers, such as to why some stores and some bags are exempt from the charge and why these exemptions do not exist elsewhere in the UK. Supermarkets’ environmental work extends well beyond carrier bags to wider and more important green goals including reducing packaging, carbon emissions, food waste and waste to landfill. An obsession with carrier bags must not get in the way of these bigger green goals,” she said.

Policies compared:

CountryWhen law brought inReductionMinimum number of employees above which businesses must charge for bagsWhere the money goes
England2015n/a250voluntary: local good causes
Scotland201412.8%10voluntary: local good causes
Northern Ireland201381.2%10voluntary: local good causes
Wales201178.2%10voluntary: local good causes
Ireland200293.5%10mandatory: Environment Fund with Landfill Tax

Where will the revenue go?

In Ireland, revenue from the tax must all go to a big pot, the Environment Fund, together with the Landfill Tax revenue. About $9.6 million was raised in the first year and the money is used for a range of environmental purposes, including schemes to prevent/reduce waste.

But in the UK, once retailers have deducted reasonable costs, they are only “expected” to donate all proceeds to good causes. The regulations put the onus onto schools, small local community groups or national charities to apply to retailers for a share of the tax proceeds.

This money can be substantial. In Wales, from when the 5p charge was introduced up to October 2014, additional donations to good causes were up to £22 million (AU$46.85 billion). Between 2001 and 2014 there was an estimated overall reduction in bag use of 57 per cent and consumer support for the charge is now riding at 74 per cent.

In all countries, a levy on plastic shopping bags has a strong anti-litter emphasis. The regulations in Ireland, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland do not distinguish between biodegradable plastic bags and other plastic bags. Biodegradable bags still take a considerable time to degrade. While they may be preferable in a final treatment situation, such bags will continue to pose a litter problem. But the English government is considering an exemption to these bags to encourage development of a new, genuinely biodegradable, more environmentally friendly bag.

The problem with plastic bags

Watch a video: the problem and how the EU-wide ban will work: “An ocean of plastic to eradicate”.

Plastic bags are a global scourge. Over one trillion of them are used every year worldwide. An estimated 3,960,000 tons of plastic bags, sack and wraps are produced annually. Of those, 3,570,000 tons (90 per cent) are discarded. This is almost triple the amount discarded the first year plastic bag numbers were tracked (1,230,000, just 0.5-3 per cent of all bags are recycled.

China, a country of 1.3 billion, consumes three billion plastic bags a day, according to China Trade News.

Not only do they cause a litter problem but scientists estimate that every square mile of ocean contains approximately 46,000 pieces of plastic floating in it, which get into the food chain and contaminate fat with dangerous chemicals – PCBs.

This has led to Arctic-dwelling Inuit mothers being told not to breastfeed their babies for fear of giving them cancer. It has also been the cause of the deaths of uncountable marine creatures.

The bags can take up 500 years to degrade. At the least, high-density polyethylene will take over 20 years to degrade, but in landfill this can rise to over 500 years.

The manufacturing of plastic bags also consumes oil, which contributes to climate change. Each bag takes an average of 0.48 megajoules or 0.133kWh of energy to produce (the oil that the plastic is made from and the energy to manufacture the bag).

To put this in perspective it means that you could power a an average car with 6.25 plastic bags a kilometre (this assumes a car goes 12km/litre of fuel and that petrol has an energy density of 10kWh/litre, giving 0.833kWh/km).

In Ireland it’s estimated that consumption has dropped approximately 90 per cent from around 1.2 billion plastic bags each year, before the tax was implemented to 230 million per year, saving around 18,000,000 litres of oil.

However, in some countries like England a proportion of the bags are made of recycled plastic, which saves oil, but this does not solve the other problems caused by disposable plastic bags.

Plastic bag laws in other countries

Policies in the rest of the world vary.

The European Parliament passed a law on 28 April this year to drastically slash the eight billion or so bags that end up polluting the European environment every year, by amending the Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive as part of its work to create a circular economy.

The move has been welcomed by trade body European Bioplastics as a step towards banning oxo-degradable plastics, which are not properly biodegradeable despite often being touted as such, as it endorses the EN13432 standard to certify biodegradation and further improve biodegradability and compostability labelling for plastic carrier bags.

The new law will take four years to come into effect, however. It requires member states to progressively reduce their use of plastic bags, with an initial threshold of 90 bags a person a year by 2019, down to forty bags in 2025.

Some EU member states like Finland and Luxembourg are already nearly there. France, for example, has an average consumption of 79 plastic bags a person a year, and has adopted a national ban on the distribution of single-use plastic bags, which will enter into force at the start of 2016.

As of July 2014, in the US 20 states and 132 cities where some 20 million US citizens dwell have bans in place or pending.

Australians use around six billion plastic bags a year, over half of which are supermarket bags, so if Australia introduced a similar tax to England it could cut use by up to three billion plastic bags a year. Although Australia does not ban lightweight bags, the states of South Australia and North Territory along with some cities have independently set a ban. Coles Bay, Tasmania was the first. The introduction of the “Zero Waste” program in South Australia led to its lightweight bag ban in October 2008. It is estimated that 400 million bags are saved each year.