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In 2016, it was reported that the UK’s new plastic bag tax had decreased the use of plastic bags by up to 85%.

This controversial tax, which the British government hoped would reduce grocery store plastic bag use by up to 80%, proved a hot-button issue before being passed in 2015.

Initial results seemed promising, but now over three years removed from its passage, it’s time to take another look at the tax’s utility.

Below, we’ll examine the effectiveness of the plastic bag tax in the 2017-2018 period and compare it to earlier data to judge just how far it’s come—and what it holds for the future. We’ll also see just what the plastic bag tax is and why it was so controversial.

What is the UK’s Plastic Bag Tax?

The plastic bag tax doesn’t apply to everyone.

Passed in October of 2015, this tax sought to decrease the use of plastic bags by large retailers in the UK by charging a 5p tax on single-use plastic bags. It’s important to note that there are exceptions to the rule, but the majority of plastic bag usage has been affected by the tax.

Only retailers with 250 or more employees fall subject to the tax, but smaller businesses can opt in if they choose.

According to the Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs, future regulations may come into effect that would stipulate all businesses follow the tax.

Currently, individuals can avoid this 5p tax if:

• They have a “bag for life”

• Use paper bags

• Shop at airports or on planes, ships, and trains

• Are buying certain types of products.

Products that are exempt from the plastic bag tax include:

• Raw meat and fish

• Prescription medicines

• Unwrapped food

• Live fish

• Plant items (such as seeds and flowers)

A Strong Start

To say that the plastic bag tax has been successful is somewhat of an understatement.

A look at statistics from the Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs reveals the tax’s impact.

In its first year, the plastic bag tax helped reverse a troubling trend in the UK. With single-use plastic bags on the rise, the British government began talks of implementing a tax. It wasn’t the first such tax to be imposed in the United Kingdom—successful implementation had already occurred in Scotland and Wales.

But with the number of single-use plastic bags peaking at 7.6 billion in the United Kingdom in 2014, the government, supported by environmental activists, took action with the passage of the plastic bag tax in late 2015.

Initial data measured by the UK government suggested that the plastic bag tax was off to a strong start.

The study, completed in April of 2016, found that only 1.1 billion single-use plastic bags were sold—a steep drop over the previous annual total of 7.6 billion.

Of note, 285 large retailers participated in the study and reported data. As we will see, this initial study enjoyed some of the highest reporting from retailers.

The data between the period of 2016-2017 seemed equally promising.

Over this period, a total of 2.12 billion single bags were reported to have been used, indicating a slight decline in their use over the initial six-month period.

Other key statistics of note:

• An average of 38 bags were sold per person over this time

• 1.33 billion bags were sold by the seven major retailers

• 261 total retailers reported data for the study

• £65.4 million were donated to good causes

A closer look at the data highlights some of the driving factors behind this major decline in single-use plastic bags.

Of particular note, thirteen retailers discontinued the use of plastic bags, dropping the number of total retailers who participated in the study.

Interestingly, these retailers switched to using paper bags—a win for environmental activists in favor of the tax.

Also, the government issued warnings on directly comparing year-over-year data, as the total number of sales a company makes may fluctuate.

For this reason, small disparities in yearly data may not be appreciable or particularly useful in statistical analysis.

Fizzling Out?

Still, however, an analysis of 2017-2018 data may be useful to measure the current trend of the prevalence of single-use plastic bags by major UK retailers.

While a quick glance at the statistics for this period aren’t particularly eye-catching when compared to the previous year, the trends during this period are of note.

Here’s a breakdown of single-use plastic bag sales during this period:

• An average of 32 bags were sold per person over this time.

• 1.04 billion bags were sold by the seven major retailers

• 249 total retailers reported data for the study

• £51.6 million were donated to good causes

The drop in the number of reporting retailers indicates a decrease in the number of those who sold single-use plastic bags.

This encouraging sign is a positive trend for advocates of the tax.

Notably, Tesco, one of the seven major retailers in the UK, accounted for over half the decrease in plastic bag use. Approximately halfway through this reporting period, Tesco abolished the selling of single-use plastic bags altogether.

Perhaps the biggest boon to the tax so far, Tesco’s decision to axe single-use plastic bags may be a sign of things to come. If adopted by the other major retailers within the country, the prevalence of single-use plastic bags can be expected to fall even more.

What may be more troubling, however, is the fact that the total use of plastic bags in the UK fell only by 22%, despite Tesco cutting their usage by 30%. With a total of twelve other retailers discontinuing plastic bag use, it would appear as use by other reporting retailers has stagnated at best.

Most startling—and worrisome—is the fact that twenty-five major retailers decided not to report their data. Though this is not a voluntary process, the Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs noted that these twenty-five retailers provided no reason as to why they failed to report data.

In total, thirty-five retailers were absent from the study—with five discontinuing plastic bag use and five going out of business.

Again, while direct comparisons between different years are discouraged, the growing trend of failing to report data is not encouraging.

What is encouraging, however, is that the number of single-use plastic bags sold by the major seven retailers during this time fell to 19 per person—86% lower than in 2014.

Why the Controversy?

Initial surveys found that only 62% of the population agreed with the tax.

Many others felt that it was an example of government overreach while still others believed it would cause unnecessary confusion at the checkout lines.

As reported, many storeowners and managers feared that the new policy would cause shoppers to feel confused and frustrated when they went to purchase their items.

It’s something they believed would be worsened by misunderstandings of the law—namely in regard to which exemptions were allowed. A customer with a non-exempt item, for instance, may feel cheated if they witness a person with an exempt item not being charged the tax.

In order to combat this, stores were forced to give their employees special training designed to make the transition easier.

Underlying these complaints was the fear that the tax simply wouldn’t work.

With business owners set to face serious setbacks, many resented the notion that the government was making their jobs harder for a program that wasn’t guaranteed to work.

The added confusion, they argued, would only hurt their businesses in a last-ditch effort to cut down on plastic bag use.

Despite the success of the tax early on, controversy was renewed in August of last year when Theresa May announced the plastic bag tax amount would soon be going up.

It’s a move that comes a shock to some, as the conservative government looks to take some of the West’s strictest measures to reduce the use of plastic bags.

As reported by The Sun, things could get even murkier later, with the British Prime Minister noting in private that she would personally like to see the outright abolition of plastic bags in general.

For now, the government has yet to officially approve a raise in the current tax amount, but with Environmental Secretary Michael Gove in support of the move, it just may come to pass later this year.

It would be a win for environmental rights activists who have celebrated the success of the bill so far.

It may be argued that many of the fears held by the tax’s opponents simply never came to pass, and the success of the levy itself is hard to argue.

The reduction in plastic bag use is even better than the initial 80% once hoped for, and there are trends in place that suggest that it could get even better.

Nearly four years into their plastic bag tax experiment, the British people may just be more supportive now over rate hikes than they would have been prior to the tax’s success.

Unintended Consequences

Recent reports have argued that the tax hasn’t been all positive for the environment, however.

It appears that though customers have abandoned using single-use plastic bags in favor of “bags for life” options.

These bags have a higher plastic content than single-use bags and are designed for multiple uses.

The only problem?

Customers aren’t using them more than once. Instead, they are disposing of them after the first use, suggesting that the tax hasn’t had an appreciable effect in cutting down on the amount of plastic waste.

Because these bags actually have a higher concentration of plastic, it could even be that the amount of plastic waste is increasing to some degree.

These same reports suggest that the government is in the process of rolling out new legislation to combat this issue. Experts predict that if these reports are true, the legislation will likely take place in 2020 and include a tax increase for single-use plastic bags and a price increase for the multiple-use variety.

Environmental activists have helped lead the push for a price hike on multiple-use bags, and many have echoed the Prime Minister’s stance on a complete abolition of plastic bags in the nation.

With over 3.6 billion plastic bags being sold by small retailers—who don’t fit inside the government’s statistics—the UK still sells as many as four to five billion single-use plastic bags per year, and recent estimates put the number of multiple-use bags at around forty-four a year per family.

The Future of Single-Use Plastic Bags

While there’s been an undeniable decrease in the number of single-use plastic bags sold in the UK over the last four years, new data suggests that the current trends aren’t enough to start celebrating over just yet.

With the rise of multi-use bags, and with the steady stream of single-use bags being sold by smaller retailers, the UK must address their current plastic bag output over the coming year.

It’s likely that sometime this year—or early next year—that the current tax rates will double and that legislation will expand to address other forms of plastic bags.

It’s a move that’s likely going to prove controversial and have some question the government’s end game. With a growing number of retailers increasingly non-compliant with data reporting regulations as is, it will be interesting to see if there is growing pushback against these increasing government regulations.

For activists, however, the current government stance on the elimination of excess plastic waste is a sign for good things to come.

As 2019 continues, for example, there’s little reason to believe that the usage rate of single-use plastic bags will rise. If anything, Tesco’s decision to eliminate plastic bags altogether may prove to have a domino effect among the nation’s six other leading retailers.

The threat of an increased tax rate may help expedite this process for many retailers and further cut down on current plastic usage.

In short, 2019 looks to be an important year that may prove critical to both the current and the future states of the plastic bag tax in the UK. 

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