The claim

“Sales of plastic bags by the seven biggest retailers in England have fallen by 90% since the 5p charge was introduced in 2015.” – UK Government, 31 July, 2019.

The analysis

Last week, the government proudly announced that plastic bag sales had fallen dramatically.

The Environment Secretary, Theresa Villiers, welcomed the news, saying: “Our comprehensive action to slash plastic waste and leave our environment in a better state continues to deliver results, with our 5p charge reducing plastic bag sales by 90% in the big supermarkets.”

The Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) added: “The average person in England now buys just 10 bags a year from the main supermarket retailers, compared with 140 bags in 2014 before the charge was introduced.”

This story was based on figures from the UK’s main supermarket chains – Asda, M&S, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s, The Co-operative Group, Tesco and Waitrose.

However, the government’s press release only mentioned in passing that these figures only include so-called “single-use” plastic bags.

This is significant because most supermarkets are actively trying to replace or supplement the sale of thin single-use bags with more durable bags, known as “bags for life”.

But the government’s figures do not include any bags for life – which now account for a significant proportion of supermarket plastic bag sales.

To try and find out the real figures, FactCheck asked the supermarkets to provide us with the number of bags for life they have sold.

Two of the biggest brands, Tesco and Sainsbury’s refused, and we are still waiting to hear back from Asda and Morrisons.

Tesco told us it was not legally required to publish the figures, while Sainsbury’s claimed it was commercially sensitive.

Only three supermarkets provided the figures: Co-op, M&S and Waitrose. Between them, they sold 58.8m bags for life in 2018/19.

That’s a decrease of less than 2% since the year before.

The reluctance of some supermarkets to publish these figures might be because the last time they did, it attracted bad publicity.

In December, the Environmental Investigations Agency (EIA) charity collected figures from eight of Britain’s biggest retailers covering 12 months between 2017 and 2018.

The results – seen by FactCheck – show that shops sold almost 958 million bags for life in just one year (although this was widely misreported at the time, with the figure given as 1.2billion in the press).

According to the EIA’s survey, Tesco sold 430 million – by far the most of any supermarket. Sainsbury’s sold 269 million, while others were considerably lower.

How much plastic?

Bags for life are much thicker than single-use bags, so they contain much more plastic.

For instance, FactCheck calculates that a Waitrose bag for life weighs almost four times as much as the supermarket’s single-use bags.

The idea is that customers will use fewer of them – so the total amount of plastic being used over the course of a year will be less. But reports suggest this is not always working.

Last year, The Times said an average UK household uses 44 bags for life in just one year.

And the managing director of Iceland admitted the supermarket was actually using more plastic – not less – as a result of switching to bags for life.

He told the paper: “These bags for life are a thicker, higher grade of plastic… We are selling less of them but it’s not yet less enough that it’s compensated in terms of the extra weight that they are for the fewer amount of bags that we are selling. So therefore I haven’t yet reduced the total amount of plastic weight, even though I have eliminated 5p carrier bags.”

The verdict

The government says that “sales of plastic bags by the seven biggest retailers in England have fallen by 90% since the 5p charge was introduced in 2015”.

But there’s an important piece of information missing: this only refers to the number of single-use plastic bags that were sold by supermarkets.

Crucially, it does not include sales of bags for life, which use more plastic and still account for around 28% of all plastic bag sales.

There is no evidence of a dramatic decrease in the sale of bags for life.

And the limited evidence available suggests the introduction of bags for life might have actually increased the overall amount of plastic being used – although this may vary between supermarkets.

We will update this blog if we receive any more data from supermarkets or the government.