Looking at the success of the UK's war on plastic

29 May 2019

Saving penguins and improving sales?

When Sir David Attenborough's Blue Planet II showed a baby albatross being fed plastic, the public's attitude to the war on plastic intensified.

Viewers were able to visualise the impact of plastic on their much loved sea turtles, penguins and whales - and a new generation of environmentally aware shoppers caused a wave to ripple through consumer trends.

The war on plastic isn't new, as UK shoppers have been paying 5p for single use plastic bags since October 2015 when shopping at retailers employing more than 250 people.

Statistics would have us believe that the 5p charge has been a success – but does this paint the full picture, should legislation go further, and how can retailers capitalise on the war against plastic?

Behind the "success" statistics

Plastic bag usage dropped by 85% within the first six months of the 5p charge being introduced. On the face of it that sounds like a resounding success - especially when coupled with the fact that retailers donated £51.6 million to charity during 2017-18 as a result of the charge (roughly equating to 4p for every plastic bag sold).

However, the charge may have actually exacerbated the plastic problem. Instead of using single use plastic bags, shoppers were turning to bags for life which should be used multiple times. Lidl revealed statistics that showed many of their bags for life were being used once, and only one percent were being returned for replacement.

Similarly Iceland confirmed that switching to only using bags for life increased consumption of plastic. Instead of shoppers using the thinner single use plastic bags, 1.2 billion thicker bags for life were being sold annually in the UK with most being thrown away after a single use.

Changes to the plastic bag levy

The government has announced plans to double the plastic bag levy to 10p and extend the charge to all retailers, instead of just the big businesses it applies to currently. The changes will come into effect by 2020 and aim to tackle the estimated 3.6 billion plastic bags currently supplied by smaller retailers every year. However this fails to tackle the issue of bags for life being used instead and increasing plastic consumption.

What are other countries doing?

When compared to the global scene, the UK is lagging behind in the war on plastic. Some countries have enforced a complete ban on plastic bags, with Kenya going as far as to impose custodial sentences on anyone using, producing, or selling a plastic bag.

US cities of Malibu and Seattle have gone beyond just plastic bags, with a complete ban on plastic straws, utensils, and stirrers.

Whilst UK brands are starting to make changes – last year, Iceland became the first major retailer to commit to going plastic free – it is clear the UK is far from setting the pace on the war on plastic.

Although the UK government is planning to ban plastic straws, cotton buds, and stirrers as part of a 25 year environmental plan, a firm date has yet to be set.

Trend towards "eco-warrior" brands?

With 88% of viewers claiming that they have now changed their lifestyle post Blue Planet II, retailers should not ignore this consumer trend, which is particularly strong among younger shoppers (millennials and the next generation, Gen-Z) - consumer research suggests 73% of millennials are willing to spend more on sustainable brands.

Despite the current economic uncertainty these shoppers are not just price conscious, they are also eco-conscious, so delivering a low or zero plastic offering can be a key differential for brands in a saturated market.

Savvy brands will be working to realise the potential of reducing plastic consumption; not just from a sustainability perspective but also from a sales and branding perspective. Not only could it help to save the penguins, but also to boost sales.

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