The charge was introduced in England five years ago this month.

After years of lobbying by environmentalists, the government finally agreed to introduce charges on single-use plastic bags in England in 2015.

The Single Use Carrier Bags Charges (England) Order 2015, which came into force on 5th October 2015, required all retailers with over 250 employees to charge at least 5p for a plastic carrier bag. 

But what difference has the charge made since 2015 and, crucially, has it worked?

The aim of the charge was to reduce the number of plastic carrier bags taken away by consumers by 80% in supermarkets. The money raised would go to good causes.

In 2014, the main retailers gave away an estimated 7.6 billion plastic bags. Immediately following the introduction of the charge, the number of plastic bags taken by consumers plummeted. Within six months of the charge’s introduction, the 80% reduction aim was met.

There has been a continued decline in the number of plastic carriers taken away by consumers ever since. The top seven supermarkets reported a drop to 1.3 billion plastic carriers taken by consumers in 2016-17. The number has continued to drop every year, to 226 million being bought in 2019-20.

Plastic bags sold by the main supermarkets in 2016/17
Plastic bags sold by the main supermarkets in 2019/20

Source: Defra, 30/07/20

The reduction means, on average, the number of bags sold by the main retailers per person of the population has dropped from 140 in 2014 to just 4 in 2019/20.

The introduction of the charge built up a well of funding for good causes. In 2016/17, retailers gave £65.4 million worth of plastic bag charges to good causes across the charity, volunteering and cultural sectors. Most of the funding was given to local causes chosen by store staff and customers.

But of course, as the sale of plastic bags decreased over the years, so did the money collected. In 2019/20, just £9.2 million of plastic bag charges is reported to have been given to good causes.

Since 2014, the number of single-use plastic bags taken by consumers from the main retailers has reduced by 95% – far exceeding the original aim. A 2019 public consultation in England found that the “vast majority” of people support raising the plastic bag charge even further.

Given the success of the charge, and with support from the public, the Government announced in August that from April 2021 the minimum charge by law will increase to 10p and apply to all retailers.