PREDICTIONS of chaos at the checkouts and ‘bagpocalypse’ dominated the headlines six years ago when shoppers were told they would have to pay five pence for a plastic bag in England. 

Such were the fears some supermarkets trained staff in how to placate angry customers and the Usdaw shop workers’ union pleaded with shoppers to respect its members – stating “Please respect shopworkers, they are just doing their job and have to comply with the law.” 

But as Australia’s Sydney Morning Herald reported in October, 2015 of “England’s plastic bag battles” the “polarising” carrier bag tax was hardly unusual: “That similar plastic-bag charges exist in the other parts of Britain - Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland - seems to not influence the critics.” 

In fact Wales was the first UK nation to introduce a plastic bag charge when on October 1, 2011 the Single Use Carrier Bags Charge (Wales) Regulations 2010 came into force and all shopkeepers had to charge for plastic bags, with some exceptions for products such as unpacked, raw meat and goldfish. 

But there was little of the anger and fear that marked the introduction in England five years later and as the Australian newspaper reported in that period it was estimated plastic bag use in Wales had dropped by 79 per cent since the charge was introduced. 

“Keep Wales Tidy supported Wales becoming the first nation in the UK to take action on Single Use Carrier Bags a decade ago and we think that it’s been a success. We used to see them frequently in hedges and rivers and trees but we rarely see that now,” said a spokeswoman for the environmental charity. 

“The charge was a good example of how a small amount can make a big change, and we think that it has served to change shopping habits for the better.” 

The latest Welsh Government statistics on the impact of the charge were published in December 2019 and found from 2016 to 2018 there was an estimated 21 per cent decrease in the number of single use carrier bags issued by retailers in Wales, with large supermarkets no longer issuing single use bags credited as the main reason for the decrease. 

Some large supermarkets have since announced moves to replace plastic bags with paper ones and introduced bags that can be recycled.

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It’s also thought that 2018/19 was the period when the more durable bags for life overtook the single use bags as the most commonly issued type in Wales. 

Fiona McAllister, who helps organise community litter picks in Cardiff with the Keep Grangetown Tidy group, says she and her fellow volunteers rarely collect discarded plastic bags – and their monthly collections usually fill 40 to 60 bin bags with litter. 

“It’s more common to see things like plastic bottles, cans and sweet wrappers. I think since the five pence charge you see fewer plastic bags, but that’s just my personal experience and I don’t have any figures. 

“But plastic is a real problem and since Covid we see a lot of PPE a lot of disposed facemasks, some times they have fallen out of pockets, so they are lost, but we do get lots around shopping centres or when litter picking on any street in Grangetown you find a lot of disposed facemasks. 

“The thing you notice now is PPE, you never used to see it but no one used to wear them but we don’t see that many plastic bags. That’s what’s changed in the last two years.” 

The Grangetown group was only formed six years ago but Fiona is confident the bag charge has impacted its work: “Common sense says most people don’t throw bags away if you have to pay for them.” 

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The Welsh Government’s research suggests the public are content with charges and most who took part in its research were described as “positive” about the charge – which isn’t held by the government, despite being commonly referred to as a ‘plastic bag tax’, as when it was introduced the Welsh Government had no tax raising powers. 

Instead it is intended that retailers donate the charge to good causes, with the government in 2011 through a voluntary agreement, having encouraged them to support environmental charities. 

However the Environment (Wales) Act 2016 requires retailers to donate their net proceeds from the sale of carrier bags to charitable purposes which relate to environmental protection or improvement in Wales. Firms which had been donating to non-environmental good causes can continue to do so if they give notice. 

As well as supporting charges Welsh consumers are, according to the government’s research, in the habit of re-using bags, as intended, for large supermarket shops and to a lesser extent for smaller ‘top up’ shopping but less likely to do so when indulging in retail such as clothes shopping. 

Shoppers were more concerned about whether the single use charge was high enough and also thought it applied to replacement bags for life, which can be replaced free of charge. 

Western Telegraph: Litter collected and bagged for collection by volunteers in Cardiff Picture: Keep Grangetown TidyLitter collected and bagged for collection by volunteers in Cardiff Picture: Keep Grangetown Tidy

While Wales became the first home nation to introduce a charge the UK had dragged its feet compared to many other countries. 

Ireland set a 15 cent levy on plastic bags in 2002 which prompted complaints of ‘bag tax rip off’ while in the same year Bangladesh became the first country to ban thin plastic bags amid concern they were contributing to flooding by blocking drains. In 2008 Rwanda introduced an outright ban on plastic bags. 

Though England was the last of the UK nations to introduce a plastic bag charge in May this year the UK Government increased the charge there to 10 pence a bag and also removed the exception for retailers with less than 250 employees. 

The UK Government has said since it introduced the charge in Engand in 2015 there has been a 95 per cent reduction in single use plastic bag sales but campaigners say the sale, and use, of plastic bags for life also need to be collected to get a true picture of how successful charging has been as an attempt to reduce the use of plastics and their production. 

As it can take up to 1,000 years for plastic bags to decompose reducing the amount of them that are actually produced has always been a key concern for campaigners.

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With the plastic bag charge considered to be a success Keep Wales Tidy, which is one of the organisations that benefits from retailers’ donations, is keen to see the regulations in Wales tightened. 

Its spokeswoman said: "10 years on, we do still see many of the thicker plastic bags, so called ‘bags for life’ and these are not subject to the charge currently.  

“We think it’s time to actually ban single use plastic bags all together and to simultaneously extend the charge to bags for life because introducing that charge back in 2011 signalled a small step in our collective journey towards zero waste and the national action needed to address climate change.  

“We think the time is right for this change and we think that Wales could lead the way in this area again.” 

In the decade since Welsh shoppers started paying for plastic bags, or as is the intention of the policy reusing those they already have, concern at plastic waste has only increased. While the Welsh Government’s research has indicated the public want to see more action on addressing the amount of plastic packaging produced it also appears it has nothing to fear from strengthening legislation that impacts consumers. 

Keep Grangetown Tidy’s next community litter pick takes place at Sevenoaks Park on Saturday, October 16 from 10am to 12pm. 

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