Plastic bag charge could increase to 10 pence

The government could be about to increase the five pence plastic bag charge in England to 10 pence, as well as extending the charge to all shops regardless of size, subject to a consultation.

The commitment from the government was made in its flagship 25 Year Environment Plan and is part of the government’s drive to combat single-use plastic pollution, headlined by a commitment to eliminating ‘avoidable’ plastic waste by 2042.

Currently, the five pence plastic bag charge – launched in England in 2015 following its introduction in Wales in 2011, Northern Ireland in 2013 and Scotland in 2014 – only applies to retailers employing more than 250 people. However, it is estimated that more than three billion plastic bags are supplied by small and medium businesses (SMEs) annually, representing a significant waste stream not captured by the charge.Plastic bag charge could increase to 10 pence

Since the introduction of the plastic bag charge in 2015, significant reductions in usage have been achieved. According to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), there has been an 86 per cent fall in disposable bags issued since 2015, while the average number of bags issued annually per person by the main supermarkets has fallen from 140 each in 2014 to 19 bags in 2017/18. In the last two years, some 13 billion plastic bags have been taken out of circulation.

Meanwhile, some £58.5 million have been donated to community and charitable causes from the proceeds of the levy in 2017/18.

The mandatory extension of the charge to smaller retailers would once again see England following in the footsteps of its devolved counterparts, with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland already implementing this policy.

While the government is committed to increasing the charge and extending it to all retailers, the policy will still be subject to a consultation, which will be launched later this year.

Announcing the move, Prime Minister Theresa May said: "We have taken huge strides to improve the environment, and the charge on plastic bags in supermarkets and big retailers has demonstrated the difference we can achieve by making small changes to our everyday habits.

"I want to leave a greener, healthier environment for future generations, but with plastic in the sea still set to treble we know we need to do more to better protect our oceans and eliminate this harmful waste."

Environment Secretary Michael Gove added: “We are committed to being a global leader in tackling plastic pollution. It blights our seas and land and chokes our wildlife. Thanks to the public’s support, our plastic bag charge has been hugely successful. It has taken 13 billion plastic bags out of circulation in the last two years alone. Today we are building on that success to ensure we leave our environment in a better state than we inherited it.”

Retailer support

The announcement has been welcomed by small businesses and retailers, with Mike Mitchelson, National President of the Federation of Independent Retailers (NFRN), saying: “We welcome the announcement that the five pence plastic bag levy is likely to be extended to smaller shops. Independent retailers are environmentally friendly and like to play their part in reducing plastic waste so many of our members have already chosen to implement the five pence charge. As a result, they have been delighted to donate the proceeds from the charge to local and worthy good causes.

“The five pence charge has made a huge difference to plastic bag usage and all independent retailers can look forward to playing their part in reducing further waste and raise money for local charities.”

James Lowman, Chief Executive of the Association of Convenience Stores, told the BBC that his trade association had “long campaigned for compulsory plastic bag charging to be extended to all businesses just as it is in Wales and Scotland”, though  a spokesperson for the British Retail Consortium questioned whether an increase in the levy to 10 pence would result in any further significant reduction in plastic bag use, saying: “We think any further reduction will be marginal as there has been such a major reduction already.”

The proposals on the plastic bag charge are but the latest government policy seeking to address the plastic problem. HM Treasury recently revealed that it had received more than 162,000 responses to its consultation on how the tax system could be used to reduce single-use plastic consumption, after Chancellor Philip Hammond announced that the government would consider fiscal action in last year’s Autumn Statement.

Other actions taken include a ban on microbeads in wash-off cosmetics products, a £61-million fund to help Commonwealth states to tackle marine plastic pollution and a £20-million fund for plastics research and innovation to develop cutting-edge and circular approaches to plastics manufacturing in the UK. Environment Secretary Michael Gove also confirmed in April that England would be introducing a deposit return scheme for beverage containers by 2020.

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