The first set of official statistics suggest the people of Northern Ireland have embraced the carrier bag levy by reducing their consumption of single use bags dramatically.Usage figures for the first year of operation of the levy indicate that 84.5 million single use carrier bags were dispensed by retailers across Northern Ireland as opposed to around 300 million bags in the year prior to the 5p levy.The figures are based on data supplied by 3,189 retailers across the region.In year one (2013/2014) quarterly bag usage figures ranged from 19.4 million in Q1 (April 2013 - June 2013), 21.6 million in Q2 (July 2013 - September 2013) to 24 million in Quarter 3 (October 2013 - December 2013).The upward trend in quarters 2 and 3 has been attributed to seasonal variation over both the summer and Christmas periods when tourists and shoppers were caught out without a bag.Bag usage numbers reduced to 19.5 million bags in Quarter 4 (January 2014 - March 2014).Under the Single Use Carrier Bags Charge Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2013, retailers are required to charge at least 5p for each single use carrier bag supplied new to customers and pay the net proceeds of the levy to the Department.Environment Minister Mark H Durkan said: "The response from shoppers has been very positive and retailers have also risen to the challenge. The result has been a very significant reduction in single use carrier bags."During the past year, I have ensured that money from the bag levy has gone back into the community through environmental projects."I have visited many of these projects and have been inspired by the great work being done."He added: "I am delighted to announce that £2.5m of this year's levy receipts will be available to support community projects. The community pays the levy and I will ensure that the community gets the benefit of the levy."More than 250 environmental projects have been supported and delivered in the past year from the revenue generated.A further £1.1m has been allocated to the Natural Heritage Grant, Sustainability Innovation Fund and Local Clean-up Support.The Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association (NIIRTA), which represents small retailers, welcomed the reduction in plastic bag usage.But it called on the minister not to move to phase two of the initiative which would add 5p to reusable bags, arguing "such an extension will undermine the environmental objectives of the levy".CHAR(13) + CHAR(10) CHAR(13) + CHAR(10)Chief executive Glyn Roberts said: "We are also concerned about reports from our members that basket sales and impulse buying have been reduced following the introduction of the levy."Since our members have worked hard to administer and collect this levy and given that retailers in other parts of the UK have a big say in how it is spent, we would call upon Minister Durkan to do more to consult local retailers.CHAR(13) + CHAR(10) CHAR(13) + CHAR(10)"Ideally we would prefer that the proceeds of the levy are used to fund sustainable town centre regeneration projects."