The consequences of the plastic bag charge: a round-up of the papers' claims

5 June 2014

"[The 5p plastic bag charge] is predicted to cut the use of such bags by 76%." - The Guardian, 4 June 2014

"Paper bags require significantly more energy to manufacture and transport than thin plastic bags, meaning that they have at least three times the carbon footprint of thin plastic bags." The Times, 4 June 2014

"Researchers in America found that a ban on plastic bags in San Francisco in 2007 may have increased deaths from food poisoning by over 50 per cent in a year." The Independent, 4 June 2014

Yesterday's Queen's Speech confirmed that the Government would be pressing ahead with its plans to introduce a 5p charge on plastic bags in England.

A number of papers have today looked to the likely impact of the policy in terms of the reduction in plastic bag usage, the impact on shoppers' carbon footprint, and food safety.

We've looked into the evidence behind some of their claims.

Plastic bag use in Wales fell by 76% following the introduction of charges

According to figures from the Waste & Resources Action Programme, the number of carrier bags used in Wales fell by 76% from 2011-2012 compared to a rise of 1.3% in the UK as a whole. A 5p charge on single-use paper or plastic carrier bags was introduced in Wales in 2011.

We can't know for sure whether a fall of this scale will be replicated in England, for a variety of reasons. The system of charges in England will be different to that used in Wales - in England some smaller shops will be exempt. As a consequence we might expect plastic bag use to remain higher than would otherwise be the case.

And the English scheme won't apply to paper bags. As the Times highlighted, that might have an impact on extent to which the scheme reduces carbon emissions.

Paper bags have a bigger carbon footprint than plastic bags

A 2006 report by the Environment Agency looked into the carbon emissions caused by different types of carrier bag. For all types, emissions were predominantly caused by the use of raw materials and energy used in the production process.

Paper bags produced 3 times the emissions of plastic bags.  In other words, you'd have to use a paper bag 3 times for it to have the same carbon footprint as a single-use plastic bag. So if consumers switch from plastic to paper bags and dispose of them at the same rate, this could contribute to increased emissions.

Of course, emissions are not the only relevant environmental impact of plastic bags. Unlike paper bags, they are not biodegradable.

The study also found that 'low-density polyethylene' bags, which are designed for multiple uses and consequently often called 'bags for life', would have to be used 4 times for them to be as energy efficient as single-use plastic bags.

That said, the reuse of bags might come with its own perils; the Independent suggested regular use of shopping bags might leave people at greater risk of food poisoning.

5.5 extra deaths per year caused in San Francisco due to a plastic bag ban

Research from the University of Pennsylvania found that a 2007 ban on plastic bags in San Francisco led to a jump in the number of hospital visits due to E. Coli. There was also a statistically significant increase in admissions due to salmonella and campylobacter bacteria.

The number of deaths from food poisoning in San Francisco rose by 46% relative to other counties where no ban was in force. This represented 5.5 more deaths in the county annually.

Unlike the proposals for England, the ban prevented shops from providing the bags, rather than requiring them to charge customers for them. It also applied to all shops. So we can't know if the policy would have a similar impact here.

The Food Standards Agency has issued safety guidance in response to growing adoption of reusable bags in Wales. It advises people to set aside some reusable bags for raw meat and fish, to never pack  ready-to-eat foods in those bags, and to throw away the bags if raw meat juices are spilled inside.

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