Now we can add England to the list of places with single use plastic bag fees.
As in NYC (where the City Council said yes but not New York State), San Francisco and Washington D.C., the rationale is the environment. And, as we see all too often, the environment will not benefit quite as much as we expect.
England’s Bag Fee
On October 5, England’s large supermarket chains and retailers began charging 5 pence (close to USD 8 cents) for single use plastic bags. While plastic bags used for live goldfish (with nothing else in them) is one exemption among several, the fees are pretty widespread.
Supporters of the fee say a ban reduces unsightly litter that is costly to clean up and protects wildlife that can choke on the bags. The incentive works. In England, only six months after the fee was implemented, data from England’s largest supermarket chains indicate bag use has plunged.
In Wales, where the fees have been around longer, single use plastic bag use is way down:
Our Bottom Line: Tradeoffs
When municipalities debate the single use plastic bag fee, they pretty much ignore the environmental tradeoffs.
After all, using fewer plastic bags means you need something else. If you replace the plastic with a cotton bag, then a British government study says you have to use it more than 131 times to offset its environmental impact. Similarly, increased paper bag use can generate more trash in landfills.
It is indeed possible that the environmental impact of a plastic bag fee has a net benefit. But knowing the environmental downside can help to maximize what we gain.