England set for plastic bag levy in autumn 2015

Government is to introduce a five pence mandatory charge for plastic bag use in autumn 2015, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has announced.

He revealed the decision at the Liberal Democrat annual party conference in Brighton on Saturday (14 September).

Speaking to delegates, the Deputy Prime Minister said: “Plastic carrier bags blight our towns and countryside. They take hundreds of years to degrade and can kill animals.

This is not a new problem. We’ve waited too long for action. That’s why I am drawing a line under the issue now. The charge will be implemented sensibly – small businesses will be exempt.”

The government is to encourage businesses to voluntarily donate the proceeds from the levy to charity. Businesses with fewer than 250 employees will be exempt from the charge.

Moreover, ministers are seeking to incentivise the use of biodegradable bags, with those meeting ‘a new high standard for these products’ also being exempt.

Bag levies across the UK

The recent announcement brings England in line with the rest of the UK; until Saturday, it was the only member of the United Kingdom not to have plans to charge a mandatory fee for plastic bag use.

Wales was the first nation to introduce the charge, bringing it into effect in October 2011. A Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) study in July 2013 found that it had led to a 76 per cent drop in the number of plastic bags issued in Wales, a figure that, it was claimed, increased to 96 per cent in some retail sectors.

The government of Northern Ireland followed suit with its own levy in April 2013. It later decided against doubling the fee after seeing a ‘significant reduction’ in the number of plastic bags used, including an apparent drop of in excess of 80 per cent in ‘several’ major supermarkets.

Furthermore, Scotland recently announced it would introduce a plastic bag levy in October 2014, which it hoped could save the country £7 million a year, totalling £90 million over the course of the 15-year ‘forecast period’.

Levy will “make people think twice”

The idea of a plastic bag levy has been fairly popular in England, with consumer magazine Which? finding that 56 per cent of those surveyed in England were in support of the idea.

And Environment Minister Lord de Mauley welcomed the levy on Saturday: “We have all seen the effects of discarded plastic bags caught in trees and hedges or ending up in rivers where they harm animals.

“Introducing a small charge for plastic bags will make people think twice before throwing them away. Year on year, the number of bags issued by retailers has been rising. Without a charge, the problem could escalate out of control and see our environment and animals suffer enormously.”

The Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) has been running a ‘Break the Bag Habit’ campaign to urge government to introduce a bag levy in England.

Samantha Harding, spokesperson for CPRE, spoke positively of the government’s announcement on Saturday: “We are delighted that the government has finally listened to the Break the Bag Habit campaign and its thousands of supporters who have called for action to stem the increasing tide of single-use carrier bags.

“With this new commitment, we can only hope that England will follow the good news in Wales and no longer have its parks, streets, countryside and waterways polluted by littered carrier bags.”

“Tougher action needed”

However, Craig Bennett, Policy and Campaigns Director at Friends of the Earth, gave the announcement a more cautious welcome: “A plastic bag levy is welcome news, but let’s not get carried away. This small step will do little to tackle the nation's huge waste mountain and can't disguise the government's woeful green record.

"Tougher action and ambitious targets are needed to cut waste and boost recycling, and bring England in line with the rest of the UK and much of Europe.

“If Nick Clegg wants to champion the environment he must do much better – starting by allowing Lib Dem peers to back a 2030 target for decarbonising the power sector when the Energy Bill reaches the House of Lords.”

The levy has been further criticised by the Packaging and Film Association (PAFA), with Michael Flynn, Chairman of the Carrier Bag Consortium (part of PAFA) saying that the move was "a symbolic political decision not an environmental or scientific one". He said: “At a time when the government faces serious international issues and the UK retail sector continues to suffer from the difficult economic environment, we are deeply saddened that, yet again, taxes on carrier bags have risen up the political agenda. Our industry is already playing a full part in facing the nation’s recycling challenge and the government’s attention and money should be directed to developing a fully sustainable UK recycling industry to stop exports of our ‘dumped waste’ and also reduce our reliance on landfill. This is obviously a symbolic political decision not an environmental or scientific one.”

Barry Turner PAFA CEO, added: “This is a missed opportunity - the plastic carrier and the front of store return scheme could have been extended and further encouraged. Plastic carriers are also the product which offer the best opportunity to become a flagship for recycled content at a time when the UK Government is keen on increasing the recycling of all packaging materials.”

PAFA also said that to avoid contravening EU competition law the tax would have to apply to all bag materials (not just plastic) and to all retailers.

Read more about the proposed plastic bag levy in England.