Britain’s Plastic Bag Fee Is Producing a Huge Spike in the Consumption of Thicker, ‘Reusable’ Plastic Bags

The law of unintended consequences rears its ugly head.

Christian Britschgi | 12.2.2019 – Reason

The results of plastic bag bans and restrictions are frequently disappointing, and occasionally counter-productive. Take the United Kingdom, where a country-wide bag fee is encouraging consumers to switch from single-use bags to thicker, reusable bags that use more plastic.

Last Thursday, Greenpeace and the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), a non-profit, released a report on the plastic consumption of British grocery stores that found they were actually using more plastic even as customers switch from using thin, disposable plastic bags to thicker reusable “bags for life.”

The report found that use of these “bags for life” increased from 960 million in 2018 to 1.5 billion in 2019. That’s a big single-year increase and well above the 439 million reusable plastic “bags for life” dispensed by the seven largest British grocery stores in 2014, according to a Waste and Resources Action Program (WRAP) study.

The U.K. imposed a mandatory 5-pence fee in 2015 on all plastic bags given out by retailers in the country in hopes of reducing plastic use.

“It is clear from this data that many people are simply swapping ‘single-use’ plastic bags for these plastic bags for ‘life’,” reads the Greenpeace/EIA report. “The impact of this simple substitution is a major concern, given the significantly higher plastic content of bags for life.”

Plastic bag regulations have produced this unintended consequence before. A University of Sydney study of local bag bans in California found that while they got rid of single-use plastic bags, they encouraged customers to buy thicker garbage bags as substitutes.

Plastic consumption still fell in California, but not by as much as bag banners anticipated.