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Carrier bags usage increases

Carrier bags usage has increased for the fourth consecutive year in the UK, but declined where levies have been introduced.

In 2013, some 8.3 billion “thin-gauge, single-use” plastic bags were used by customers in UK supermarkets, the latest figures from WRAP indicate. This is 3.2% more than in the previous year, and 10.1% more than in 2010.

Overall, bag usage has increased steadily after reaching its lowest level in 2009 at 7.2 billion. In 2006, when the figures were first compiled, the total was more than 12 billion.

Significant drops have occurred in the administrations where bags levies have come into force. In Northern Ireland, which introduced a 5p charge in April 2013, carrier bag usage plummeted by 71% year-on-year to 60 million.

In Wales, it declined sharply between 2011 and 2012 after a 5p charge was introduced, with the number of bags fell from 270 million to 60 million. In 2013 it increased to 70 million.

Last year, Scottish and English customers used the highest number of bags per capita per month, 12.6 and 11.5, respectively, while Northern Irish consumers used 2.6 and those in Wales 2.0.

“The reductions in Wales and Northern Ireland indicate that legislation can trigger significant reductions in carrier bag use,” said Alice Ellison, environment policy adviser at the British Retail Consortium. But she cautioned that the levy set to be introduced in England next year might not have the same effect as a result of its complexity and exemptions.

Under the current proposals, the English levy will only apply to plastics bags and small retailers will be exempt. Defra is also considering an exemption for biodegradable bags.

In Scotland, a 5p charge on all single-use bags will come into force in October.

WRAP noted that despite the number of bags issued increasing between 2012 and 2013, the overall weight declined as a result of a fall in the average weight of bags. The total weight of single-use carrier bags issued in 2013 was 56,800 tonnes, down from 60,200 tonnes in 2012.

WRAP also indicated that around 40% of stores have bag recycling facilities.

There has been a 48% reduction in the amount of virgin polymer used in all carrier bags between the baseline of 2006 and 2013 but last year there was a 4.8% increase in the use of virgin polymer.

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