Number of plastic bags on UK beaches plunges thanks to 5p levy

stranded plastic waste
stranded plastic waste

The number of plastic carrier bags found on UK beaches has dropped by almost half, according to conservationists.

The Marine Conservation Society said the introduction of a 5p levy on single use plastic bags in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland over the last five years was instrumental in the drop.

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According to the charity's annual Great British Beach Clean report, there were on average 11 plastic bags per 100 metres of coastline cleaned in 2015 but this year there was just under seven – a decrease of almost 40% and the lowest number in the last 10 years.

The charity began calling for action on single use carrier bags in shops back in 2008 and was instrumental in getting a levy introduced in Wales in 2011, Northern Ireland in 2013, Scotland in 2014 and England in October last year.

"In the last decade, our Great British Beach Clean volunteers have found an average of 10 single use carrier bags for every 100 metres of coastline cleaned," said the charity's beach watch manager Lauren Eyles.

"This year, for the first time since the charges were introduced, we've seen a significant drop in the number and that can only be as a result of the 5p charge which is now in place in all the home nations.

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"It vindicates the charge, which we predicted would be good news for the marine environment. Thanks to our thousands of fantastic volunteers who collect beach litter data, we can now see the impact these charges have had."

Beaches in England and Northern Ireland saw the biggest drop in the number of plastic bags found during the September clean up - over half compared with 2015.

In Wales, where the charge has been in place for five years, the number – just under four bags for every 100 metres cleaned - is significantly lower than any other year since 2011. In Scotland, volunteers found, on average, one bag fewer over the same distance this year compared with last year.

The charity said there has been a drop of almost 4% in the amount of litter found on UK beaches between 2015 and 2016, with 6,000 volunteers collecting 268,384 items.

Beaches in Scotland saw a decrease of 18% in overall litter levels, rubbish in the North East of England dropped by 14% and in the Channel Islands by 10%. But there were increases in the amount of beach litter in the North West (24%), Wales and the South West (15%) and in Northern Ireland (9%).

Analysis of the data collected by volunteers also showed a rise of over 4% in the quantity of drinks containers found on the UK's beaches – including plastic bottles, bottle tops and aluminium cans.

There was also a 53% rise over the past year in the amount of balloon-related litter found on beaches.

Turtles mistake plastic bags and balloons for their jellyfish prey, and the items can block their digestive systems leading to death from starvation. Some species of seabirds are particularly attracted by the scent of this plastic junk "food".

Environment minister Therese Coffey said: "The 5p charge has clearly been a huge success – meaning our marine life is safer, our communities are cleaner and good causes are benefiting from an impressive £29 million raised.

"It shows small actions can make the biggest difference, but we must not be complacent as there is always more we can all do to reduce waste and recycle what we use."