The number of single-use plastic bags used by shoppers in England has plummeted by more than 85% after the introduction of a 5p charge last October, early figures suggest.
More than 7bn bags were handed out by seven main supermarkets in the year before the charge, but this figure plummeted to slightly more than 500m in the first six months after the charge was introduced, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said.
The data is the government’s first official assessment of the impact of the charge, which was introduced to help reduce litter and protect wildlife – and the expected full-year drop of 6bn bags was hailed by ministers as a sign that it is working.
The charge has also triggered donations of more than £29m from retailers towards good causes including charities and community groups, according to Defra. England was the last part of the UK to adopt the 5p levy, after successful schemes in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Retailers with 250 or more full-time equivalent employees have to charge a minimum of 5p for the bags they provide for shopping in stores and for deliveries, but smaller shops and paper bags are not included. There are also exemptions for some goods, such as raw meat and fish, prescription medicines, seeds and flowers and live fish.
Around 8m tonnes of plastic makes its way into the world’s oceans each year, posing a serious threat to the marine environment. Experts estimate that plastic is eaten by 31 species of marine mammals and more than 100 species of sea birds.
The environment minister, Therese Coffey, said: “Taking 6bn plastic bags out of circulation is fantastic news for all of us,. It will mean our precious marine life is safer, our communities are cleaner and future generations won’t be saddled with mountains of plastic taking hundreds of years to breakdown in landfill sites.
“It shows small actions can make the biggest difference, but we must not be complacent, as there is always more we can all do to reduce waste and recycle what we use.”
The charge was introduced to try to influence consumer behaviour after the number of carriers bags given out by seven major supermarkets in England rose by 200min 2014 to exceed 7.6bn – the equivalent of 140 per person and amounting to a total of 61,000 tonnes of plastic.
Matt Davies, chief executive of the UK’s largest retailer Tesco said: “The government’s bag charge has helped our customers [in England] reduce the number of bags they use by 30m each week, which is great news for the environment.”
Tesco expects its Bags of Help scheme to provide more than £20m in the first year to local environmental projects.
Plastic bags can take hundreds of years to break down, but plastic drinks bottles and disposable coffee cups are now being seen as a huge challenge in protecting the environment.
The results of the Marine Conservation Society’s annual beach cleanup in 2015 showed that the amount of rubbish dumped on UK beaches rose by a third compared with the previous year. The number of plastic drinks bottles found were up 43% on 2014 levels.
“There is always more that we can do,” said Dr Sue Kinsey, a technical specialist for waste at the Marine Conservation Society. “We encourage everyone to join in on our Great British Beach Clean this September to help keep our coastlines clean.”
Andrew Pendleton, of Friends of the Earth, said: “The plummeting plastic bag use demonstrates the huge benefits just a small change in our everyday habits can make. It means less damaging plastic finding its inevitable way into our waterways and countryside. This is a massive boon for nature and wildlife.”
He added: “With attention now turning to the millions of non-recyclable coffee cups that go to landfill and to oversized boxes and excess packaging as a by-product of online shopping, the government and forward-thinking businesses have a golden chance to cut waste and reduce resource use in a sensible way that consumers welcome.”
At the time of the launch, the government forecast that the charge would reduce use of single-use carrier bags by up to 80% in supermarkets and 50% on the high street. It is also expected to save £60m in litter cleanup costs.
• 6bn single use plastic bags would cover an area of about 900,000,000m2, over three times the area of Birmingham.
• 6bn bags laid end-to-end it would stretch about 3m km, or 75 times around the world.
• 6bn bags are approximately equivalent to the weight of 300 blue whales, 300,000 sea turtles or 3m pelicans.