Bag usage drops 71% in Northern Ireland

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Department of Environment Mark Durkan, environment minister for Northern Ireland.

A shopping bag fee in Northern Ireland has resulted in a 71.8 percent reduction in bag numbers in its first year of operation.

The 5 cent levy was introduced in April 2013 and statistics for the year to 31 March 2014 indicate that 84.5 million single use bags were dispensed by retailers across Northern Ireland compared with around 300 million bags in the prior year.

The Northern Ireland Department of the Environment (DoE), which released the statistics, said: “These indicate that the people of Northern Ireland have embraced the carrier bag levy by reducing their consumption of single use bags dramatically.”

The fee had net proceeds of 4.17 million pounds ($6.9 million), which will be directed at local environmental projects.

There was an upward trend in bag usage from 19.4 million in its first quarter (April 2013 – June 2013), and 21.6 million in second quarter (July 2013 – September 2013), and 24 million in the third quarter (October 2013 – December 2013).

The DoE said the rise during the third quarter may be due to seasonal variation between the summer and Christmas, when, “tourists and shoppers were caught without a bag.”

The usage number dropped to 19.5 million during the final quarter of the first year.

“This evidence suggests that the introduction of the levy has reinforced earlier voluntary efforts by both retailers and shoppers to reduce substantially the negative environmental impact of carrier bag consumption by avoiding the unnecessary use of single use carrier bags. These previous efforts had already reduced single use bag numbers from an estimated 425 million bags in 2006/7.”

The statistics were compiled from data supplied by 3,189 retailers in Northern Ireland. DoE said a small proportion of businesses have not yet registered in connection with the levy, but it believes these businesses typically do not dispense single use bags.

In reference to the levy proceeds, DoE said it has allocated revenue back into the local community through the Challenge Fund resulting in a final spend of 2.3 million pounds ($3.8 million). It said more than 250 environmental projects were supported in the past year. In addition, 1.1 million pounds ($1.8 million) has been allocated to the Natural Heritage Grant, Sustainability Innovation Fund and Local Clean-up Support.

“The community pays the levy, and I will ensure that the community gets the benefit of the levy,” said environment minister Mark Durkan, according to a BBC report.

A second phase of the Northern Ireland bag levy starts on Jan. 19 when the 5 pence levy will be extended to all new carrier bags, including reusable bags, that cost less than 20 pence (33 cents). This is intended “to encourage shoppers to reuse all types of bags and protect the environment,” DoE officials said.