Country report: United Kingdom

The British government initially decided against a nationwide ban or levy on plastic bags, preferring a voluntary agreement with supermarkets. This came about under the Courtauld Commitment of March 2005, in which the environment minister and chief executive of the government’s anti-waste body, the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP), met 13 of Britain’s leading grocery retailers, as well as the British Retail Consortium.

Under the commitment they agreed to:

  • “Design out” packaging waste growth by 2008 (achieved: zero growth);
  • Deliver absolute reductions in packaging waste by 2010;
  • Identify ways to tackle the problem of food waste.

The companies – Asda, Boots, Budgens, the Co-operative Group, Londis, Iceland, Kwik Save, Marks & Spencer, Morrison’s, Sainsbury’s, Somerfield, Tesco and Waitrose – represent 92% of the UK grocery market. A further 22 companies have since signed up. All parties subsequently agreed to try to cut use of plastic bags by 50% by May this year. This would save 130,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide – equivalent to taking an estimated 41,000 cars off the road.

A further development came in the 2008 budget, in which the government announced it intended to crack down on the consumption of single-use plastic carrier bags if insufficient progress had been made by that year, with a view to their elimination. In addition, the Climate Change Act (2008), which commits to fixed and binding five-year carbon budgets, allows the government to audit consumption and force retailers to charge for bags.

The plastics packaging industry threatened legal action if the government did act to enforce a charge for plastic bags, accusing it of diverting from other environmental issues such as airport expansion and coal-fired power stations.

Local councils backed the government’s move but felt it was being over-cautious. London councils proposed a law to remove plastic bags from the city. That, too, was opposed by the packaging industry.

The Green Party supported stronger government action, declaring: “While the Green Party applauds small voluntary steps … to encourage customer behavioural change away from the endless consumption of new plastic bags, we believe that the only way to achieve a serious and sustainable decrease is through government legislation introducing a mandatory tax on every plastic bag used.”

In 2009, the third tranch of a study of food packaging waste in the UK released by the Local Government Association reported that:

  • Five per cent of weighed shopping baskets comprised packaging;
  • The average weight of packaging in a basket was 727g, but this ranged from 645.5g for a basket of items from Tesco to 802.5g for Waitrose’s basket;
  • The proportion of recyclable waste packaging ranged from 57.8% in Lidl baskets to 66.8% in Sainsbury’s baskets.

The Independent reported in February 2009 that even without a ban, the number of bags dispensed in Britain had fallen from 13.4 billion in 2006 to 9.9 billion – a drop of 26%, according to WRAP.

In other developments:

  • Brighton & Hove City Council in southern England became the largest authority in Britain to offer support for a voluntary ban.
  • The town of Modbury in Devon became the first in Europe to ban plastic bags. The Guardian reported that the move had largely been embraced in what it described as a largely conservative community. People observed using plastic bags were regarded with disdain.
  • Welsh citizens voted for the Welsh parliament to consider a bag ban. en.pdf

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