Outgoing Prime Minister Theresa May recently raised the possibility of increasing the plastic bag charge in England from 5p to 10p before she bows out. If this happens, this may prove a significant proposal, given the impact of the first plastic bag tax – please read on.
Plastic Bags Have been around too long
High Street and shopping centre retailers in England have been legally charging 5p for all single-use plastic carrier bags since October 2015. Smaller businesses can also opt to apply the charge, all in the name of carbon saving. Most consumers reuse their bags several times over, before finally discarding as trash.
Interestingly, since introducing the 5p charge for one-off plastic bags, usage has plummeted. For example, in 2014, in excess of 7-billion plastic bags sold to shoppers by major supermarkets in England alone. That has since fallen by more than a staggering 80%.
Government expects the retail market to donate proceeds from plastic bag sales to charitable causes, though this is not legally binding. Retailers may deduct reasonable costs to accommodate the cost of supplying plastic bags. This could include outlays pertaining to retraining staff and introducing new POS systems. Thereafter, it is up to each retailer to decide which causes to support.
The Handout Trail
Donations from 5p plastic bag charges in 2017-18 amounted to an impressive £51m. This was around £15m less than the previous year. Tesco topped the charts with almost £13m donated to worthy causes, Asda followed with £8m.
It appears we are incinerating more plastic in the UK, which suggests we are exporting less waste plastic. Burning is not the ideal solution because of what it dumps in the atmosphere, adding worryingly to the carbon footprint.
Following the Plastic Trash Trail
China’s decision more than a year ago placed a general ban on waste imports. This left the UK facing a crisis by way of a mountain of waste plastic as China imposed its ban. In the wake of public alarm about plastic pollution, we may also be producing less plastic waste, although it is impossible to be certain of the figures.
In the 12 months to October 2018, analysis of Environment Agency figures shows that the UK exported more than 600,000 tons of recovered plastic packaging abroad. Over a period of 12 months ending October 2018, Environment Agency statistics confirm the recovery and shipment of this volume to various destinations.
In the corresponding period ending October 2017, this figure exceeded 680,000 tons, indicating a significant drop, year-on-year.
Who Has Taken Over Problem Plastic Waste?
It is clear that other countries have imported much of the plastic packaging previously reprocessed by China. Who are these countries and what are they doing differently that China no longer saw fit to continue?
With waste plastic, there is the potential to make profit thanks to efficiency factors. Many nations have geared up in terms of their reprocessing facilities, resulting in a shift towards accepting the UKs plastic waste.
However, incineration as an alternative in the UK has also increased, and we may be seeing the benefits of the ‘Blue Planet’ effect on public behaviour.
Fact is we cannot be certain from the data what has happened to the shortfall in plastic recyclables. Some Chinese recyclers moved their operations abroad in order to benefit from cheap flows of plastic in the region before importing it back to China as recycled pellets.
However, not all of it has been welcomed. Several countries including Indonesia, Vietnam and Taiwan have heavily restricted imports because shipments were blocking ports due to the poor quality of the material imports from other countries.
While it seems the volume of UK plastic accepted by China dropped by an incredible 94% from 2016 -2018, Malaysia, Turkey, Poland and Indonesia took up the slack. It all points to one nations’ poison rubbish is anothers good fortune!