The Scottish people have persevered through many a hardship and challenge: The Anglo-Scottish Wars, the reign of Charles I, the Highland Potato Famine, 19th century urban overcrowding, Donald Trump.

And as recent government numbers prove, Scots have now managed to seriously curtail the use of throwaway plastic shopping bags since a minimum per-bag fee of 5 pence (about 8 cents) was enacted last year. This hasn’t been the easiest task for a country that, until recently, had the highest usage rate of single-use shopping bags — or “carriers” — in the United Kingdom. Residents of Scotland, however, were up for the challenge and have done a cracking good job in the process.

New government figures show that in the 12 months since the bag fee became law, the number of single-use plastic bags distributed in supermarkets and other retailers has dropped by a staggering 80 percent — that’s roughly 650 million bags, an equivalent of 4,000 metric tons of plastic.

Calling the 1-year-old campaign a “major success,” Scotland’s Environment Secretary Richard Lochhead notes: “Previously, statistics showed that people in Scotland used more than 800 million new single-use carrier bags every single year — more per head than anywhere else in the U.K. It's now becoming second nature to shoppers to reuse their carrier bags and hopefully to think more about our impact on the environment."

He adds: "I am confident that Scotland is going to go strength from strength in its bid to tidy up our streets and beaches, where litter has been a highly visible problem in the past."

Iain Gulland, head of Zero Waste Scotland, echoes Lochhead's sentiments: "It's not always easy to change our habits, but Scotland is proving it has this in the bag."

tesco plastic shopping bagErrant plastic Tesco bags dangling from trees are a lot less common sight these days in Scotland. (Photo: Graham C99/flickr)

As the Scottish government has noted, discarded plastic shopping bags make up only a small segment of the national waste stream by weight. However, they can become a “highly visible and damaging component of litter."

Although they are not the most common form of litter, plastic single use carrier bags in particular have a disproportionate impact on wildlife, particularly in the marine environment where they can be mistaken for food and cause death after ingestion. As they are light easily windblown they can spread widely and be difficult to remove from the wider environment.

While retailers that offer carriers to customers for the 5p fee have experienced reductions as high as 90 percent, some chain stores, including Sainsbury's, have seen flimsy plastic shopping bags completely disappear because they stopped offering them altogether. Sainsbury's shoppers, however, now have the option to invest in a sturdy, reusable tote made from recycled materials for 5p.

As for the folks who have handed over 5p in exchange for a plastic bag over the past year, they’ve helped to raise £6.7 million for “good causes.”

Much like in Wales, Northern Ireland and, most recently, England, the money collected through the bag fee is donated by retailers to a range of local and national charities — most environmental — of their choice. For example, British retail behemoth Tesco donates the plastic bag cash from its Scottish stores to Keep Scotland Beautiful. Levy funds generated at Welsh Tesco locations go to Keep Wales Tidy.

Sainsbury's charitable giving has been the subject of some controversy as of late because, as mentioned, the grocery store chain, the third largest in the U.K., has completely axed single-use carrier bags.

Out and about with reusable shopping bags in Edinburgh Hooray for reusable shopping bags! (Photo: Edinburgh Greens/flickr)

In 2011, Wales became the first country in the U.K. to institute a carrier bag fee while Northern Ireland followed suit in 2013. Scottish Parliament ushered in its own law, which applies to both food and non-food retailers, in Oct. 2014. Zero Waste Scotland, a government-funded environmental organization, heads up “retailer guidance” to help stores understand — and comply with — the law.

And then there’s England. What to say about England?

Earlier this month, England became the last country in the United Kingdom to enact a carrier bag fee, also 5p. Only applying to chain retailers or large standalone stores with more than 250 full-time employees, the regulations don't directly impact mom-and-pop corner stores although small businesses do have the option of charging for bags.

And with the new law has come a fair amount of predictable noise in the tabloids and on social media along with worries of in-store uprisings. (“Plastic bag chaos looms” screamed the Daily Mail earlier this month.)

In addition to confusion at the checkout aisle, the English have demonstrated rather transgressive behavior since the carrier crackdown went into effect. In some areas, supermarket basket theft is on the rise. In response, Tesco has equipped baskets with security tags at select stores to prevent further pilfery. And much to the fear of local councils, a few sticky-fingered shoppers have even made off with entire carts.

England’s new law has also birthed some unusual (read: cheeky) instances of entrepreneurialism. As reported by CityLab, eBay’s U.K. site has been flooded with sellers offering “vintage” and “rare” plastic grocery store shopping bags for ridiculously marked up prices.

But never mind all the moaning and groaning and thievery in England. It's been a big year for Scotland. The English need only look directly north for encouragement and motivation.

Via [BBC], [Co.Exist]

Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.

Scotland is winning the plastic shopping bag war
Meanwhile in England, shopping basket theft is on the rise.