Because of a plastic bag surcharge, British beaches are suddenly a lot cleaner.



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Good news for fans of foggy, damp British beaches!

A beautiful day on the beach in Hastings, Sussex. Photo by Peter Trimming/geograph.org.uk.

Thanks to the efforts of local policymakers and environmental activists, it appears those beaches are a lot less plastic-baggy then they were just five years ago.

In 2011, Wales became the first country in the United Kingdom to require customers at supermarkets and retail stores who want a single-use plastic bag to pay a 5-pence surcharge.

Basically, anyone who wanted to take their items home in a plastic bag had to pay about 5 cents per bag.

An old Sainsbury’s bag. Photo by Mark Tristan/Flickr.

Northern Ireland, Scotland, and England followed suit just a few years later. Fast-forward to 2016, and it turns out the new rules have actually been making a noticeable difference, at least in terms of how many of the unsightly, bird-intestine-cloggers wash up on shore, according to a BBC report:

“The number of plastic carrier bags found on UK beaches has dropped by almost half, the Marine Conservation Society (MCS) has said.

The charity’s Great British Beach Clean report found just under seven bags per 100 metres of coastline cleaned.

That is a 40% drop from the average 11 bags found in 2015 and is the lowest number in 10 years.”

The study wasn’t all good news — it also found an increase in plastic bottles and balloon-related litter, and plastic bag trash increased slightly in some regions of England — but overall, the trend seems to be heading in a positive direction.

This is good news for hey-maybe-using-so-much-plastic-just-one-time-is-not-so-good advocates in the United States, who have already won a few key victories in recent years.

A Ralph’s supermarket in Hollywood, California. Photo by Yebo420/Wikimedia Commons.

Plastic trash has a nasty habit of poisoning birds, sneaking into the food chain, and winding up in places like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, where it hangs out for hundreds of years, breaking down bit by bit without truly biodegrading. As a result, U.S. states and cities have fought back against our propensity to dispense them willy-nilly.

California banned single-use plastic bags at large retailers in 2014 (a ballot measure affirming the ban was approved this year). Though the prohibition measures are fairly new and the effects are difficult to study comprehensively, data on similar measures is largely encouraging.

Cities like Seattle; Austin, Texas; and Cambridge, Massachusetts, have approved similar bans, while New York City and Washington, D.C., have passed surcharge ordinances similar to those in the U.K.

While plastic bag taxes and bans can seem like a small thing, they can help limit fossil fuel use and promote the health and welfare of marine life, two steps that are crucial for creating a less litter-filled planet.

A bag on the beach at Red Wharf Bay in Wales. Photo by John S. Turner/geograph.org.uk.

A plastic bag surcharge may not be the Paris Agreement, but the fact that data is starting to show that incentivizing customers to reuse shopping bags can be effective environmental policy is good news.

What’s better? It’s the kind of effective environmental policy supported by data you can see right in front of your face every time you lay out on the beach for a tan.

In the grand scheme of saving the planet, less cluttered beaches are a little thing.

But if it’s going to take a sea change to save our planet, it can’t hurt to start by cleaning the beach.

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