Resource Use

Defra calls for evidence on plastic bag charge


The UK government has today (25 November) called for evidence on ‘how a charge for single-use plastic (carrier) bags will work in England’ in anticipation of the new levy coming in on 1 October 2015.

As part of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ (Defra) policy to ‘reduce and manage waste’ (and in response to a European Commission proposal on 4 November 2013 to reduce the distribution of plastic carrier bags), the government department is calling on interested stakeholders, including ‘retailers, consumers, industry, Non-Governmental Organisations and local authorities’ to voice their opinions on how England’s plastic bag levy could work.

Call for evidence details

Having already settled upon the size of the charge (five pence) and what it applies to (single-use plastic bags), Defra is now looking for evidence on the following aspects of the levy:

  • what sort of bags (i.e. material type, thickness) should be exempt from the charge;
  • what bags used for specific purposes (i.e. to carry food, medicines) should be exempt from the charge;
  • how best to tell people about the charge;
  • how to ensure organisations are applying the charge;
  • how to encourage organisations to donate profits from the charge to ‘good causes’.

The consultation highlights a range of proposals for consideration, including whether organisations with fewer than 250 employees should be exempt from the levy to ‘reduce the burden on start-up and growing businesses in England at a time when the Government is supporting new growth in our economy’; and whether biodegradable and multi-use plastic bags should be exempt.

Defra has said it will need to implement ‘ambitious’ standards for biodegradability, informed by survey participants.

Regarding enforcement, the government suggests that local authorities should impose the plastic bag charge whilst Trading Standards Officers (TSOs) could act as the administrator for enforcing the charges. Civil sanctions are also a possibility.

Stakeholders have until 20 December 2013 to respond.

Environmental Audit Committee action

The Environmental Audit Committee is also calling for online and oral submissions (deadlines set for 9 and 18 December respectively) on the impacts of the proposed plastic bag charge in a separate inquiry into the levy.

Questions for consideration include:

  • the likely change in the number of bags discarded and any benefits for biodiversity and the environment;
  • the likely change in the volume of plastic film produced, and the impact of a reduced demand for the oil production by-product used to make bags;
  • the impact on the use of biodegradable bags and the impact on plastics recycling;
  • any wider environmental or sustainability implications of a possible increased use of natural-fibre ‘bags for life’;
  • the relative advantages and disadvantages of the proposed levy rather than a possible complete ban on lightweight plastic bags; and
  • the rationale for excluding particular types of retailer from the levy scheme.

“Not a simple issue”

Speaking of the consultation, Chief Executive of the Chartered Institute for Wastes Management (CIWM) Steve Lee, said: “While we believe that a charge is necessary and that England was at risk of being left behind by not introducing a legislative requirement, this is not a simple issue.

“The parameters of the legislation must be carefully thought through to ensure that the measure delivers genuine environmental gains and the question of biodegradable bags is a particularly challenging issue. CIWM welcomes the research that Defra is proposing to fund and we would like to see rigorous material standards and effective sorting solutions to allow this important technology to play its part in reducing the impact of carrier bag litter on the land and marine environments.”

Plastic bag levy details

The consultation follows on from the UK government's September announcement that England is to have a five pence mandatory charge for plastic bags from Autumn 2015 in the hopes of reducing plastic litter.

According to Keep Britain Tidy, when littered, carrier bags cost taxpayers in England around £10 million every year in clean-up costs.

Speaking at the time, then-Resource Minister, Lord de Mauley said: “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 announcement brings England in line with the rest of the UK; previously, it was the only member country not to have plans to introduce a plastic bag levy. Ahead of the levy, it was recently announced that the UK's 'first' plastic bag recycling plant will open later this year.

Read more about Defra’s call for evidence or the Environmental Audit Committee’s inquiry.