English carrier bag charge begins

English carrier bag charge beginsCertain retailers will begin charging shoppers in England for single-use carrier bags today (5 October).

The introduction of the system, which only applies to retailers with 250 or more employees, means that there is now a charge in place in all UK countries, as it follows systems being implemented in Wales in 2011, Northern Ireland in 2013 and Scotland in 2014.

In 2014, 7.64 billion single-use carrier bags were given out by ‘major supermarkets’, according to the Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP), equating to 11.7 bags per person per month. This represented a 21 per cent increase on the number used in 2010.

Environment Minister Rory Stewart suggests that the charge could lead to an 80 per cent reduction in the number of carrier bags taken from supermarkets, and a 50 per cent reduction on the high street.

In the year following the five-pence charge’s implementation in Wales, per person use per month fell from 7.4 bags to 1.7, though it has increased slightly since. In Northern Ireland, the figure fell from 8.8 in 2012 to 2.6 in 2013 after the charge’s introduction, and in 2014 recorded a figure of 1.6.

Figures released by the Scottish Government suggest that in the fourth quarter of 2014, after the charge began on 20 October, major retailers reported a reduction in bags used of 66.6 per cent compared to the fourth quarter in 2013.


The English charge applies to single-use plastic carrier bags thinner than 70 microns (0.07mm). Supermarket bags are generally between 17 and 23 microns thick, while clothing retailers tend to use bags between 50 and 70 microns thick.

There are, however, a number of exemptions to the charge. Shoppers will receive a free bag if they are buying certain products, including:

  • uncooked fish, meat and poultry, packed or unpacked;
  • unwrapped food or food sold in containers that do not prevent leaks;
  • unwrapped loose seeds and flowers;
  • unwrapped blades;
  • prescription medicine;
  • live fish; and
  • bags at places of transit, such as airports, stations or ports.

However, if other products that do not meet these exemptions are packed in the same bag, the charge is incurred.

Paper bags are also exempt from the charge, and while retailers will still have to charge for ‘bags for life’ as they generally fall beneath the 70 microns thickness threshold, if they are designed for multiple-use the retailer will replace them for free if they break.

These stipulations, as well as the exemptions for smaller retailers, have been criticised in the build-up to the charge being introduced. A report by the Government’s Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) last year called the scheme ‘too complex’ and ‘unnecessarily confusing’. Indeed, MP Joan Walley, Chair of the Committee, said that ministers had “managed to make a complete mess of the carrier bag charge”.

Government ‘suggests’ proceeds go to ‘good causes’

Retailers that are required to charge for single-use bags will have to report sales to Defra every year by 31 May. Local authority inspectors will check that retailers are complying with the law and charging correctly.

Any store found failing to comply will be given a fixed fine of up to £200 and a variable fine of up to £5,000.

For every five pence charged, 0.83 pence will go to the treasury in VAT. Retailers will then be allowed to take ‘reasonable costs’ from the charge to allow for the administration of the system. Retailers have been encouraged to donate the remainder of the money to good causes, as is compulsory in Wales and Scotland, but they are under no obligation to do so.

In Northern Ireland, the charge is described as a ‘levy’ and so is paid to the government as a tax. The money is then allocated to various environmental funds and projects.

The government has estimated that the charge will raise around £730 million for good causes over the next 10 years.

In England, Morrisons has already announced that its proceeds will predominantly go to its Morrisons Foundation and its charity partner Sue Ryder, while Sainsbury’s has said each store’s profits will be given to local charities. Waitrose, meanwhile, is to establish a new community and environment fund that will choose a different beneficiary every year. It has also committed to making no deduction for administrative costs.

Carrier bags ‘a blight on the environment’

Commenting on the charge’s introduction, Environment Minister Rory Stewart said: “The more bags we take from the shops, the more plastic makes its way into our environment, blighting our high streets, spoiling our enjoyment of the countryside, and damaging our wildlife and marine environments.

“Simple changes to our shopping routines, such as taking our own bags with us or using more bags for life, can make a huge difference in reducing the amount of plastic in circulation meaning we can all enjoy a cleaner, healthier country.

“Plastic bags are a blight on our environment and pose a real threat to marine animals who mistake them for food. Encouraging people to take fewer plastic bags from supermarkets is a small but important step in reducing plastic waste to protect our precious marine wildlife.”

Exemptions of charge will create ‘confusion for both retailers and consumers’

The Association of Convenience Stores (ACS), a trade association representing small retailers, has welcomed the charge, but suggests that limiting it to large retailers will cause confusion.

James Lowman, Chief Executive of the ACS, said: “We believe that the best option for England would be to introduce a universal carrier bag charge that requires all stores to charge for bags, as is already the case in Wales and Scotland.

“Independent retailers in England support the introduction of a universal five-pence single-use carrier bag charge, with 15 per cent already having their own voluntary scheme in place. Unfortunately, the government has chosen to exclude small businesses, creating confusion for both retailers and consumers.”

The British Retail Council has also questioned the complexity of the English charge. Environment Policy Adviser, Alice Ellison said: "The impending carrier bag charge for England is unnecessarily complicated and not consistent with the simple approach taken elsewhere in the UK. Consequently, the charge will not deliver the same environmental impact as the rest of the UK. The charge leaves retailers with complex messages to communicate to shoppers, such as to why some stores and some bags are exempt from the charge and why these exemptions do not exist elsewhere in the UK. 

"Bag usage may not have fallen, but that doesn't mean that supermarkets' progress has stalled on addressing this and wider environmental issues. Supermarkets' environmental work extends well beyond carrier bags to wider and more important green goals including reducing packaging, carbon emissions, food waste and waste to landfill. An obsession with carrier bags must not get in the way of these bigger green goals."

Read Defra’s full guidance on the English carrier bag charge.

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