The UK 5p plastic bag charge is doing wonders for European waters

A 5p charge on plastic bags at supermarkets may seem like a shameless cash grab, but the intention was always to put you off taking one, rather than to raise tax revenue. And a new study published in Science of the Total Environment shows that it’s doing wonders as a disincentive, with researchers reporting a 30% drop in plastic bags on the seabed.

The UK 5p plastic bag charge is doing wonders for European waters

With shared waters and countries introducing the levy at different times (Ireland and Denmark were ahead of the game in 2003, the UK behind the times in 2015), this was always going to be a tricky one to measure. By examining a large area of seabed covering most of the UK, and stretching all the way to Norway and Ireland from the last 25 years, the researchers hoped to see the real impact of policy change in action. And they did.

“The fewer bags we use, the fewer we can lose, the fewer we can put into the environment,” Thomas Maes, the paper’s lead author, told The Guardian. “If we all work together towards a better environment, we can make changes. A lot of people live in doom, but … don’t give up yet.”the_5p_plastic_bag_charge_is_doing_wonders_for_european_waters_-_2

In the UK, the number of plastic bags collected from shops has certainly dropped since the levy was introduced in 2015. Before the 5p charge, each of us was taking an average of 140 bags per year – now it’s down to 25. At the moment, the charge is only required of major retailers, but the government is now considering rolling it out to more retailers.

Still, if writing regularly on the planet’s health for Alphr has taught me anything, it’s that there’s basically no such thing as universally good environmental news, and there’s a sting in the tail here too. Although plastic bags are dropping, there’s an increase in other seabed debris: mainly fishing equipment. “The following subcategories were rising: fishing line, cable tie, straps and crates,” the paper reads, adding that “extensive seafarer training and specific industry actions might be useful to target some of these sea-based items.”

Overall, however, it’s good news and proof that simple policy-based behavioural nudges can make a huge difference to our sociological behaviour. This paper will not only help push the case for incentivising the reuse of bottles, but possibly in a whole range of other policy problem areas, from smoking to obesity. Given the extent of our e-waste problem, urban mining might be another key area to consider incentivising.

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