5p plastic bag charge | What does it mean for the environment? A plastic bag charge has been introduced in England in an attempt to reduce the prevalence of single-use carrier bags. All retailers with more than 250 employees must introduce a 5p charge for plastic bags from today, following similar moves elsewhere in the UK. The new policy is an attempt by the government to significantly decrease the number of bags used each year. In 2014 8.5 billion plastic bags were given out in the UK. The policy will apply to all large retailers, including supermarkets and clothes shops, but with some items exempt: Uncooked fish products Uncooked meat products Chips or food sold in containers Seeds, flowers and bulbs Unwrapped blades, including axes, knives and razor blades Prescription medicines Live aquatic creatures Any item bought at an airport, train, plane or ship England is the last country in the UK to adopt the policy -- plastic bag charges have been active in Wales since 2011, Northern Ireland from 2013 and Scotland from 2014. But how successful has the policy been? It depends how you measure it. The Welsh government has reported the percentage of people using their own bags as supposed to bags provided by shops has increased 61 percent to 82 percent, with support for the policy rising to 70 percent after its first year. Similar figures were found in Scotland -- retailers reported that single use of bags dropped by around 80 percent since the policy was introduced. Most of the money collected from the 5p fee will be donated to environmental charities, but the Treasury still expects to make £19m a year from the charge. But wider waste-related attitudes and activity were not affected, with Welsh figures suggesting very little behavioural spillover to other waste-related behaviours. WHY CHARGE MONEY FOR PLASTIC BAGS? The environmental impact of plastic bags is huge, affecting ecosystems on land and in the ocean. Many bags end up in landfill sites, with chemicals seeping into the soil. Enzymes released by nylon-eating bacteria also release harmful amounts of methane as the bags degrade -- a major contributor to global warming. But the major environmental impact of plastic bags is in the ocean. Around eight million tonnes of plastic ends up in our oceans each year, much of which is in bag form. This has a major impact on marine environments. A range of marine life, particularly whales, dolphins, porpoises and turtles, are seriously injured or killed when they ingest or become entangled in plastic -- research puts this figure at 100,000 marine animals a year. David Barnes, ecologist at the British Antarctic Study, also noted that plastic particles are responsible for transporting persistent organic pollutants and distributing algae that contribute to red tides. Red tides are algae blooms that rapidly decay, releasing nitrogen and killing marine life. DON'T MISS Deadly diesel pollution has been hiding in plain sightDeadly diesel pollution has been hiding in plain sight Clearing the ocean of this plastic is extremely difficult, as bags and other pollutants often release micro-particles that are hard to remove without also harming other forms of marine life. These particles are also ingested by fish and smaller marine species. Figures from Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales are yet to show the potential environmental impact of the plastic bag charge, but environment minister Rory Stewart hopes the charges will improve damage caused by bags to wildlife and marine environments. "Simple changes to our shopping routines, such as taking our own bags with us or using more bags for life, can make a huge difference in reducing the amount of plastic in circulation -- meaning we can all enjoy a cleaner, healthier country," he said.
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