Drop in plastic bags littering British seas linked to introduction of 5p charge

Scientists find an estimated 30% drop in plastic bags on the seabed in the same timeframe as charges were introduced in European countries

A UK levy of 5p per bag introduced in 2015 has already reduced single-use plastic bags by 85%.
A UK levy of 5p per bag introduced in 2015 has already reduced single-use plastic bags by 85%. Photograph: Stuart Kelly/Alamy Stock Photo

A big drop in plastic bags found in the seas around Britain has been credited to the introduction of charges for plastic bags across Europe.

Ireland and Denmark were the first two countries to bring in levies for plastic bags from shops in 2003, followed by slew of other European countries. England was the last UK nation to introduce one, in 2015.

In the first such study of its kind, scientists have found an approximately 30% drop in plastic bags on the seabed in a large area from close to Norway and Germany to northern France, and west to Ireland.

The authors of the study, published in the journal Science of the Total Environment, claim the drop in plastic bag pollution, measured from 2010 – about the mid-point of charging policies coming into force – showed the power of such levies.

“The fewer bags we use, the fewer we can lose, the fewer we can put into the environment,” said Thomas Maes of the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science, lead author of the paper.

“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 results could also be used by campaigners for other charges aimed at reducing public problems, such as pollution, obesity, smoking and congestion. The UK is already consulting on a refundable charge for bottles and cans.

“These findings have reminded us of one of the fundamentals of policy – incentives matter,” said Robert Colvile of the Centre for Policy Studies, a rightwing thinktank.

“When it comes to the environment in particular, pricing in external costs is better than heavy-handed regulation,” he said.

Globally around 8m tonnes of plastics enters the marine environment every year – the weight of more than 80 of the largest aircraft carriers. They are blamed for ensnaring sealife and birds, and have been found in the guts of dozens of species.

A UK levy of 5p per bag introduced in 2015 has already reduced single-use plastic bags given out by major retailers by 85% – down from 140 to 25 bags for the average person each year.

The policy applies only to major retailers, but government is consulting on extending it to almost all shops.

The marine pollution study has been trawling the seabed for 25 years, recording the number of items of pollution found in each square kilometre. Two-thirds of all trawls have found at least one item of plastic, and while the number of plastic bags has fallen, other plastic pollution has increased, especially fishing gear.

Since you're here…

… we have a small favour to ask. More people are reading and supporting our independent, investigative reporting than ever before. And unlike many news organisations, we have chosen an approach that allows us to keep our journalism accessible to all, regardless of where they live or what they can afford.

This is The Guardian’s model for open, independent journalism: available to everyone, funded by our readers. Readers’ support powers our work, giving our reporting impact and safeguarding our essential editorial independence. This means the responsibility of protecting independent journalism is shared, enabling us all to feel empowered to bring about real change in the world. Your support gives Guardian journalists the time, space and freedom to report with tenacity and rigor, to shed light where others won’t. It emboldens us to challenge authority and question the status quo. And by keeping all of our journalism free and open to all, we can foster inclusivity, diversity, make space for debate, inspire conversation – so more people, across the world, have access to accurate information with integrity at its heart.

The Guardian is editorially independent, meaning we set our own agenda. Our journalism is free from commercial bias and not influenced by billionaire owners, politicians or shareholders. No one edits our editor. No one steers our opinion. This is important as it enables us to give a voice to those less heard, challenge the powerful and hold them to account.