The Plastic Carrier Bag Charge Does Work

The Plastic Carrier Bag Charge Does Work

The number of plastic bags on UK beaches drops by almost half in just one year and marine charity says 5p has been small price to pay for fewer carriers at the coast.

The number of plastic carrier bags found on UK beaches in surveys carried out by the Marine Conservation Society (MCS) has dropped by almost half between 2015 and 2016. This is the lowest number reported in over a decade, and fantastic news for marine wildlife.

Plastic bag and jellyfish, photo MCS
Plastic bag and jellyfish, photo: MCS

The figures are published today (22.11.16) in the MCS Great British Beach Clean 2016 report, based on surveys carried out in September 2016. In 2015 there were, on average, 11 plastic bags per 100 metres of coastline cleaned but in 2016 there were just under seven – that’s a decrease of almost 40% and the lowest number in the last ten years.

The charity began calling for action on single use carrier bags in shops back in 2008 and was instrumental in getting a levy introduced in Wales in 2011, Northern Ireland in 2013, Scotland in 2014 and England in October last year.

“In the last decade, our Great British Beach Clean volunteers have found an average of ten single use carrier bags for every 100 metres of coastline cleaned. This year, for the first time since the charges were introduced, we’ve seen a significant drop in the number and that can only be as a result of the 5p charge which is now in place in all the home nations. It vindicates the charge, which we predicted would be good news for the marine environment. Thanks to our thousands of fantastic volunteers who collect beach litter data, we can now see the impact these charges have had,” says Lauren Eyles, MCS Beachwatch Manager.

Beaches in England and Northern Ireland saw the biggest drop in the number of plastic bags found during the September clean up – over half compared with 2015. In Wales, where the charge has been in place for five years, the number – just under four bags for every 100 metres cleaned – is significantly lower than any other year since 2011. In Scotland, volunteers found, on average, one bag fewer over the same distance this year compared with last year. MCS says overall the trend is down and that can only be good news for visitors and wildlife.

MCS says there has been a drop of almost 4% in the numberof litter items found on UK beaches between 2015 and 2016 – but with 268,384 individual items of litter collected at 364 events by just under 6,000 volunteers, there’s very little to be cheerful about when it comes to the sheer quantity of litter on our beaches.

Beaches in Scotland saw a decrease of 18% in overall litter levels, rubbish in the North East dropped by 14% and in the Channel Islands by 10%. But there were increases in the amount of beach litter in the North West (24%), Wales and the South West (15%) and in Northern Ireland (9%).

Data collected by Great British Beach Clean volunteers also showed a rise of over 4% in the quantity of drinks containers found on the UK’s beaches – including plastic bottles, bottle tops and aluminium cans. And there was an astonishing rise in the amount of balloon related litter found on UK beaches – a 53.5% increase on 2015. The charity says it’s taking its ‘Don’t Let Go’ campaign to a local level to persuade more councils to ban the release of both balloons and sky lanterns on their land.

Turtles and other animals mistake plastic bags and balloons for their jellyfish prey, and the items can block their digestive systems leading to death from starvation. It has recently been shown that some species of seabirds are particularly attracted by the scent of this plastic junk ‘food’.

Bird with impacted stomach
Skeleton of a bird with plastic where it’s stomach would have been

The charity says the England litter strategy, currently being drafted by Defra, and strategies elsewhere across the UK, must include specific actions to tackle the problems highlighted by the surveys.

MCS’ beachcleaning work is supported by players of People’s Postcode Lottery, enabling teams of volunteers to clean up huge swathes of our beaches.


Join an MCS Beach Clean on the Fylde Coast

Rossall Beach Residents & Community Group carry out the MCS Great British Beach Clean at Cleveleys in September each year.

Find out more here


The single use carrier bag charge comes in for shoppers in England.

Published September 2015

The Marine Conservation Society (MCS), the UK’s leading marine charity, says the 5p carrier bag charge being introduced in England on October 5th can only be good news for marine and beach litter levels.

However, small businesses in England – those employing fewer than 250 people – aren’t included in the scheme whereas in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland all shops, however small, have to apply the charge.

As in the Welsh scheme, paper bags are also exempt from charges in England, yet they have a substantial environmental footprint. “The whole point of a charge is to change behaviour, reduce bag use and therefore replacing one single use item with another is not the way to go,” says Dr Kinsey.

MCS says it’s quite clear from the comments they’ve received via social media from people in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, that a straightforward charge is not only easy for consumers to understand but it also focuses minds on the reason why a charge is so important.

In 2014 MCS volunteer beach cleaners collected 5,199 carrier bags on 300 UK beaches – that’s 47 for every kilometre surveyed as part of the charity’s Beachwatch programme.

“This is not a tax raiser for Government, but a charge to kick start behaviour change, ultimately resulting in fewer plastic bags on our beaches and in our oceans,” Dr Kinsey continues. “We want people to embrace the charge and the environmental good it’s doing rather than be confused and angered by it every time they go shopping”.

Rubbish at a Cleveleys beach clean

Almost half a tonne of rubish picked up at one beach clean by the Rossall Beach Group at Cleveleys

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