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Will a 10p bag charge reduce single-use plastic?

Pamela Yeow, 2nd October 2020

The UK government recently announced plans to increase the charge of single-use plastic bags from 5p to 10p by April 2021. This plan will also be extended to include small retailers in England. This decision was made off the back of research and data that showed that since the introduction of the 5p charge in 2015, the UK’s total consumption of single-use plastic decreased 95%.

With greater public awareness of the negative impact single-use plastic has on the environment, perhaps the next step is to consider the possibilities of designing plastic out of the actual product entirely. In the UK, shopping habits have already permanently changed, with customers purportedly only purchasing 4 single-use plastic bags in 2020 (compared with 10 in 2019, and 140 in 2014). Food producers, manufacturers and supermarkets are already taking tentative steps toward reducing single-use plastic. For example, several supermarkets have trialled the idea of bringing one’s own receptacle when purchasing meat at the counter.  Others have introduced environmentally friendly containers and recyclable or compostable plastic in their packaging. This report from the World Economic Forum suggests a viable alternative product that can be utilised in place of plastic.

Although these plans are welcome if they are to reduce even more, the purchase or use of single-use plastic, we need to think wider about the issue of single-use plastic, and not just in the narrow view of single-use plastic bags. Celebrities such as Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall are campaigning alongside green activist groups such as Greenpeace to urge major supermarkets and the UK government to pledge to reduce single-use plastic by half in 5 years’ time. In the current climate of the Covid-19 pandemic, many restaurant chains have switched to takeaways and deliveries, resulting in an increase in use of single-use plastic containers. Coffee chains such as Costa and Starbucks, which had previously offered customers a rebate or a discount if using one’s own receptacle, have now pulled back from that offer due to concerns about virus spreading. Having said that, there have also been reports that suggest that due to the sharp increase in the number of workers working from home, the number of single-use plastic water bottles sold have halved.

In envisioning the UN SDG goal 12 of responsible consumption and production, where there are targets for 2030 to prevent, reduce, reuse and recycle, now is the time to think about how we can prevent it entering the product cycle in the first place.  The Ellen MacArthur Foundation has an ambitious agenda and has much support from many large multinationals and non-profit organisations. As a foundation, they have also created teaching resources so that the future generations can be educated now. I am cautiously optimistic that with the current momentum, we will be able to reach these ambitious targets to reduce the use of single-use plastic and do better for our single planet.

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