30% drop in plastic bags littering the sea floor around Britain

By: Clare Fischer
Date posted: 5 April 2018

There are less plastic bags on the seafloor since the introduction of a carrier bag charge in many European countries, according to a scientific study.

Deep Plastic Bag
© Tracey Jones Photography / shutterstock

The decrease in the number of plastic bags recorded in the surveys is very encouraging. It shows that fiscal measures can work - charging for what was once a free item, often used just once and thrown away, has had a real influence on consumer behaviour

Richard Harrington,
MCS Head of Communications

The marine pollution study that has been trawling the seabed for 25 years also identified an increase in fishing related debris.

Scientists from the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Sciencesay they have found an estimated 30% drop in the number of plastic bags on the seabed around Norway, Germany, northern France and Ireland.

Thomas Maes, Marine Litter Scientist at Cefas said: “It is encouraging to see that efforts by all of society, whether the public, industry, NGOs or government to reduce plastic bags are having an effect. We observed sharp declines in the percentage of plastic bags as captured by fishing nets trawling the seafloor around the UK compared to 2010 and this research suggests that by working together we can reduce, reuse and recycle to tackle the marine litter problem.”

Plastic items such as bags, bottles and fishing related debris were commonly observed across all areas and over the entire 25-year period (1992–2017), 63% of the 2,461 trawls contained at least one plastic litter item.

But despite the reduction in the number of plastic bags recorded in the analysis of scientific surveys, the overall amount of litter has been maintained by an increasing quantities of other plastic items, including fishing debris.

Widespread distribution of litter items, especially plastics, were found on the seabed of the North Sea, English Channel, Celtic Sea and Irish Sea. High variation in the abundance of litter items, ranging from 0 to 1835 pieces km−2 of seafloor, were recorded.

“The decrease in the number of plastic bags recorded in the surveys is very encouraging. It shows that fiscal measures can work - charging for what was once a free item, often used just once and thrown away, has had a real influence on consumer behaviour without genuinely hurting people in the pocket,” said Richard Harrington, MCS Head of Communications.

“Surveys by our volunteers on UK beaches as part of the Great British Beach Clean back up the findings of this study, indicating that fewer plastic bags are entering the marine environment. Although England was one of the later nations, in both the UK and Europe, to bring in the charge at the end of 2015, bag numbers found on English beaches have since declined. Urgent action is needed to tackle other plastic items and bring a stop to the constant plastic tide.”

Ireland and Denmark were the first two countries to bring in charges for single use plastic bags in 2003. England was the last UK nation to introduce a levy, in 2015.

Do you want to help stop the plastic tide? We are currently calling on UK governments to put a charge on single-use plastic throwaway items and demanding that big fast food chains stop giving out millions of plastic cups, stirrers, straws and cutlery but instead replace them with reusable or fully compostable alternatives.

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  1. Help us stop the plastic tide
  2. Download the Great British Beach Clean Report 2017

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We removed 568,000 pieces of litter from our coasts in one year

Every day millions of microplastics enter the sea from personal care products such as scrubs and toothpastes

Litter has increased by 135% since 1994, with plastics increasing by a staggering 180%

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