A viewpoint on the plastic bag charge in England: who is it benefiting?
Author: Nnamdi Madichie
The Millennium Development Goals (elapsed in 2015) have come and gone and since been replaced with an expanded and extended set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), numbering 17 in total. Of these 17 goals, seven focus on living within our means. Indeed goals 11-17 all emphasise this – from the need for Sustainable Cities and Communities (Goal 11), to Responsible consumption and production (Goal 12), Life Below Water (Goal 14), and the need for Partnerships for the goals (Goal 17).
Through its Blue Charter, the Commonwealth has been proactive in affirming its collective commitment (Goal 17) to preserving and nurturing the world’s oceans (Goal 14) – including tackling marine plastic pollution, which the ACU is supporting through its Blue Charter Fellowships scheme.
In recent years, the general public have become more aware of the impact on our environment – and in the UK, consumers have had their everyday behaviours challenged through the introduction of government legislation which enforced a charge for those using plastic carrier bags for their shopping.
Changing attitudes and behaviours
In a recent co-authored paper, ‘Are retailers “bagging” the carrier bag levy in England? An exploratory enquiry’ in the Journal of Environmental Management, I – along with four other academics – examined the business impact of the single-use carrier bag legislation in England requiring retailers to charge consumers for their ‘misdemeanours’.
While the study acknowledges that the legislation impacts three key stakeholders – government, retailers, and consumers, its primary focus was from the perspective of retailers and how this stakeholder group may have benefitted from the charge. For retailers, the charge provides an avenue for bolstering their carbon footprint as consumers are expected to reuse their plastic bags (e.g. bags for life) as they now have to pay for them.
While we acknowledge that retailers are using the collected revenues to promote their image in the marketplace and present themselves as socially responsible entities, there are indications that the proceeds are helping some retailers to top-up their coffers. However, some retailers have put these funds to good use, including Waitrose who have funded a second round of ACU Blue Charter Fellowships with funds from their plastic bag levy.
What can we do to reduce plastic consumption?
But there are solutions – consumers can take their own reusable containers to shops, and retailers can use more recycled (and recyclable) materials. However, 2025 is a long way off when plastics are in food chains now. Eliminating single-use materials is possible but it’s going to involve a wide array of players – businesses, consumers and policy-makers – to make this possible.
First businesses are talking about the issue, but the public could be forgiven for their impatience over the lack of choice and commitment. They need to innovate.
Second, consumers, on their part, also need to be prepared for a little inconvenience. Plastics are not a disposable commodity, they last hundreds of years in our environment and until now their true lifecycle cost has not been reflected in the price at the till.
Third, policy-makers and the government, meanwhile, have initiated some positive changes, but more needs to be done to ensure that targets are being met and businesses are more transparent in the fight against plastic consumption, as well as the judicious use of the ‘levy on sin’ (as consumers may see it). Indeed one UK supermarket chain has now opted for paper carrier bags rather than plastics.
This article is excerpted from an academic article by five academics in three different UK higher education institutions, including our own, the University of Southampton and University of Westminster. The research can be cited as follows:
Jory, S. R., Benamraoui, A., Madichie, N. O., Ruiz-Alba, J. L., & Chistodoulou, I. (2019). Are retailers “bagging” the carrier bag levy in England? An exploratory enquiry. Journal of Environmental Management, 233, 845-853, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0301479718314129