by Steve Watson7 minute read
Last October marked the five-year anniversary of England’s 5p charge on single-use carrier bags (SUCBs) – one year for each penny. By now, the charge has become thoroughly normalised, and it’s hard to believe that some people initially reacted by stealing shopping trolleys. Yet, five years on, plastic bags still litter our streets, rivers, and seas.
The government’s announcement last August that it’s giving the SUCB charge a makeover was therefore a welcome one. England’s SUCB policy was always a watered-down version of approaches taken elsewhere in the UK, because small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) weren’t required to apply the charge. That is now set to change, as from this April the charge will expand in scope to include SMEs. Furthermore, it will also increase from 5p to 10p.
However, even with these changes, a number of limitations will remain both with regards to the charge’s effectiveness and the way in which retailers are required to report consumption figures. In the first of a two-part article on carrier bag policy, we’ll be taking a look at what official consumption data tells us about the charge’s impact over the past five years.
Bag to basics
Let’s first remind ourselves of some basics. English legislation defines a SUCB as ‘an unused bag made of lightweight plastic material with handles, other than an excluded bag’, where ‘lightweight plastic material’ is a plastic polymer material not greater than 70 microns thick. Exempted bags include, most importantly, those used to package unwrapped food (e.g. fruit and veg bags) and returnable multiple reuse bags of 50 to 70 microns, sold for at least 5p (or ‘bags for life’). The latter exemption is somewhat confusing, as the charge is 5p or more anyway, but the point is that retailers are obliged to exchange these reusable bags for new ones free of charge, so once you have one it’s yours indefinitely.
After Defra released the first official data showing the charge’s impact back in July 2016, I explored the real meaning of the figures. To summarise, headline claims of an 83% drop in consumption in the first six months were rather overstating things, because the only comparative data was from seven large retailers who had been voluntarily reporting to WRAP prior to the charge. These retailers were Asda, Marks and Spencer, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s, The Co-operative Group, Tesco and Waitrose – let’s call them the Big Seven. In fact, all anyone could say for sure was that the Big Seven had achieved an 83% reduction within their combined 45% market share – a drop of 37%.
Figuring it out
We now have another four years of data, covering all those retailers with 250 or more employees that have been required to both charge and report, plus a small number of SMEs reporting voluntarily, accounting for less than 1% of reported bags. This was 194 retailers in total for 2019/20, down from 285 for 2015/16. To start with the broadest analysis, we see that total consumption of SUCBs subject to the 5p charge was 2.12 billion (equating to 38 bags per capita) in 2016/17. This figure fell to 564 million (10 bags per capita) in 2019/20. This means that, regardless of whatever initial impact the charge may have had in the first six months, it is now achieving an overall 73% reduction in consumption of SUCBs (provided by ≥250 employee retailers) compared with the baseline.
Defra also helpfully presents consumption as reported by the Big Seven. Coincidently echoing the first headline figure, this also shows an 83% reduction: from 1.33 billion in 2016/17 to 226 million in 2019/20. So, consumption reduction for the Big Seven has been 10% greater than for all ≥250 employee retailers in aggregate. This makes immediate sense for a couple of reasons: one, consumers are more likely to bring along reusable bags for the kind of planned shopping trips they make to large retailers; and two, all of the Big Seven have either stopped selling or begun phasing out SUCBs.
Digging a little deeper, we can analyse the time series data to reveal the absolute magnitude of reduction achieved against a 2016/17 baseline. For the total number of SUCBs reported, there was a 17% reduction in the first year, a further 30% reduction in the second year, and a further 26% reduction in the third year. From this, it looks like consumption reduction initially sped up, before slowing down again.
How might we explain this? It could be that financial disincentives like the bag charge tend to lose some effectiveness over time as consumers become accustomed to them, both because they lose the cognitive prominence that comes with novelty and because their economic clout lessens due to inflation. Conversely, though, familiarity can lead to genuine behaviour change as consumers develop a habit of reusing bags.
Most likely other reductions measures besides the charge, such as the Big Seven’s phasing out of SUCBs, have played an important role. If we do the same time series analysis on just the data reported by the Big Seven, we see that consumption reduced by 22% in 2017/18, a further 37% in 2018/19, and a further 24% in 2019/20. These figures follow the same pattern as those for overall consumption, but are higher for 2017/18 and 2018/19, which was when many of the Big Seven removed SUCBs from their stores. Tesco, for example, stopped selling 5p bags mid-2017, while both Asda and Marks and Spencer removed SUCBs from stores in 2018.
Re-useful to know
That’s the story told by the data from mandatory reporting. The data from voluntary reporting, scant as it is, tells a very different one.
Despite not being part of the original Big Seven, Aldi has a market share only exceeded by Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda and Morrisons. It is also the only large retailer to provide voluntary data on the number of bags for life it sells.
Aldi’s sales of SUCBs fell from around 67 million in 2016/17 to around 38 million in 2018/19, and then to just under 3,500 in 2019/20, after it phased out SUCBs in February 2019. However, the number of bags for life it sold increased from 3.75 million in 2016/17 to more than 106.5 million in 2019/20. What this means is that the total number of plastic carrier bags Aldi sold in fact increased by around 35.5 million.
This is not to criticise Aldi; the rise in its customers’ carrier bag consumption must be partly explained by the company’s substantial growth over the past five years. In fact Aldi should be commended for voluntarily reporting what other retailers are keeping hidden: that there is a trend for consumers to merely substitute SUCBs for bags for life.
Although we only have official data for Aldi, the Environmental Investigation Agency and Greenpeace UK have been surveying major retailers on plastic consumption since 2018 and producing an annual report. The latest iteration finds that: “In 2019, 10 companies representing 95.2% of the grocery retail market sold 525 million single-use carrier bags and 1.58 billion ‘bags for life’, the heavier duty ‘reusable option’”, the equivalent of “almost 57 ‘bags for life’ per UK household”.
We want consumers to switch to bags for life, but we also want them to actually reuse these bags. Again, due to lack of data, we don’t know how often bags for life are being reused or traded in for new bags. However, the available evidence suggests that, in many cases, customers use bags for life as SUCBs.
While England’s data ostensibly tells a success story, it obscures the reality of substitution to a different type of plastic carrier bag. And we just don’t know to what extent the combination of a charge and phasing out of SUCBs has actually reduced carrier bag consumption overall, as opposed to driving substitution, because official data does not tell us.
Large retailers have had five years to start reporting on sales of bags for life voluntarily and haven’t, so it looks like it’s up to the Government to mandate them to do so. Given that they already report some data voluntarily to the EIA and Greenpeace UK, and given how worrying this data is, official reporting seems both eminently possible and necessary.
The coming policy changes do nothing to address reporting needs. In fact, while SMEs will be required to charge for SUCBs they won’t be required to report on sales. While this won’t necessarily make things worse than they are already, it’s another missed opportunity to improve our picture of what is really going on with carrier bag consumption in England.