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Will paying for plastic bags make us greener?

Plastic bags and green bag for life

If you live in Wales you’ll have to pay 5p for every new plastic carrier bag from next year. Is this an eco-friendly scheme that should be rolled out across the UK or just another way to squeeze money out of shoppers?

I’ve got a confession to make. Last night, having rushed to the supermarket straight from work, I packed my shopping into fresh plastic carrier bags.

There, I’ve said it. It’s not an easy thing for me to admit – I like to think I’m as green as I can be, especially when it comes to easy things like reusing bags.

And, while I’ve got piles of strong ‘bags for life’ at home, I still keep kicking myself mid-shop when I realise that I’ve left them at home – again.

Wales is leading the way

I know I’m not alone. In September YouGov polled consumers on this subject and found that 43% often use a ‘bag for life’, yet just over a third still use free plastic bags provided by the retailer.

But would charging us for every bag we use change these figures? Welsh politicians seem to think so. Last week the Welsh Assembly announced that, from 1 October 2011, shoppers will have to pay 5p for each plastic carrier bag they want when they’re out shopping.

That would have set me back around 50p last night. It’s not going to break the bank, but it might well nudge me into leaving a few strong bags in the car at all times (something I regularly tell myself to do, but never have to date).

Scheme should be countrywide

There are a few shops that have introduced this scheme nationally – Marks & Spencer and Holland & Barrett spring to mind. Last year, M&S told us that since charging shoppers 5p for plastic bags it’s cut the number handed out from 464 million to 77 million. Impressive stuff – just think how many more could be cut with a proper roll out.

And that’s the crux of the issue for me. While some shops obviously need to lead the way, I can’t help but think that Wales has the right idea. Surely the scheme needs all retailers on board to really get into people’s mindsets and work properly?

YouGov’s survey revealed that public opinion is mixed on whether this would be successful. Nearly a third agrees that charging for carriers will reduce the overall number being used, while 24% think these schemes are a ploy by supermarkets to make more money.

Where do you stand on this? Would paying for plastic bags force you to bring your own, or would it just mean you’re paying a higher price to pack your shopping?

What do you think about paying for plastic bags?

They should be free (81%, 2,841 Votes)

5p per bag is about right (12%, 418 Votes)

We should pay more than 5p (7%, 238 Votes)

Total Voters: 3,497

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It definitely changed things in Ireland when they introduced it in 2002. Here is an article from the BBC at that time saying that it had created a 90% drop in plastic bag usage. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/2205419.stm Mind you, they were then charging 15c per bag, a lot more than the proposed cost in Wales now. It’s gone up to 22c per bag now, which is a major deterrent to using them and I have noticed that the bags you do end up buying sometimes (I, for one, often walk out of the house without my shopping bags), are flimsy and break easily. It has raised millions of Euros in Ireland and cut down on the number of plastic bags that were often seen flying about as litter. All in all, I think it’s a great thing to have introduced this. I don’t know why the UK has taken so long to get there. Think of the revenue and the help to the environment.

Sophie Gilbert says:
9 November 2010

Like mhanley I wonder if just 5p is going to be that big a deterrent. Maybe 20p would be better. It would have set you back £2, Hannah! I also sometimes forget to take my shopping bags with me and end up using new bags and I feel guilty about it too. If I were charged 20p a pop I’d be surer to remember to take my shopping bags with me wherever I went!

I totally agree that Wales has the right idea. The scheme does need all retailers on board to really get into people’s mindsets and work properly and it should be really rolled out throughout the UK.


Re Marks and Spencer charging for bags; if you food shop, they charge 5p per bag to carry home products which themselves are packaged in oversized, non recyclable containers, yet buy something in any other department and a bag is given automatically.


I am in favour of all taxation that is avoidable [like betting, smoking and other pleasures] so I have no problem with a tax on plastic bags but it must apply to all purchases, not just essential food shopping which would bear more heavily on those on lower incomes. Everyone forgets to take their reusable bags out from time to time and we have a cupboard full of bags for life bought on such occasions, so the imposition of a penalty for taking plastic bags might discipline us into compliance. But while I agree with a previous comment about excess packaging in M&S, unfortunately some shops are so cheese-paring with their packaging that bags are essential for product protection and separation. [Why is the best butter wrapped in a piece of greaseproof paper that gets torn while the “not-really-quite-as-nice-as-butter” spreads all come in sharp-edged plastic tubs that puncture the yogurt pot lids?] Aldi shops won’t wait while you carefully put your stuff away into your separate bags for each commodity – it all comes wooshing off the belt into your box or trolley in no particular order with the washing powder on top of the ice cream on most occasions. Waitrose only release their own bags under protest, interrogate you on how many bags you’ve brought with you, whether they are standard size or extra large, and – if you’ve been sufficiently worthy – give you little green Ludo counters to put in one of three drums to support your choice of local charity. But never go to Tescos without your own bags because their ordinary plastic bags are so small, thin and useless that they split or break before you even get home. Morrisons plastic bags are the best for size and strength and can be reused many times over. Sainsburys used to provide large strong paper bags that would last ever so long [I still have two that must be over twenty years old] so why cannot the supermarkets and all other retailers do the same today [as Primark do]?


Totally, totally agree with this, many EU countries have adopted this, the UK, as per norm in the eco-awareness stakes lags far behind her neighbours. Retailers will more than re-coup the price of bags where they have to be issued and, more importantly, fewer bags,taking an eon to bio-degrade, if at all, end up in landfill. In reality it shouldn’t cost us anything other than a change in attitude – we remember to take the strong canvas/hessian bags (or keep them in the car) as much as we remember to take my wallet (please note it’s always MY wallet :)). It’s a no brainer. No excuse. Do not pass Go until you re-use your bags. Simple as. End of.


I suspect I’ll be in a minority on one but I’m not sure that plastic bags are quite the evil that they’re made out to be. They do a very good job of carrying goods (light, strong, waterproof) and they don’t really contribute to our key environmental problem which is global warming. They are of course a litter problem but so is much other packaging including glass, cardboard and plastic packaging. I wonder why they have been picked out with such enthusiasm? Reusing almost anything is generally a good thing to do, but reusing paper bags is much more problematic than plastic. At the end of its life a plastic bag can be recycled (essentially pure polythene) but some of the alternatives are mixtures of materials and not easily recycled.

My local supermarket charges for plastic bags (environmentally “good” they tell me) but keeps potatoes and various vegetables refrigerated. To cool something by one degree takes about 3 times the energy and carbon dioxide emission than to heat it by one degree but that seems to pass unnoticed. A tax on chilled food and free plastic bags would I suggest make more sense.


More tax? Why dont i just hand my entire wages over to the Government and be done with it? You want to tax chilled food now? That food which is locally produced, fresh food which helps the local economy and play into the hands of Frozen food importers?

The bit which made me laugh is i went into a Co-Operative store and they had a 5 foot cardboard sign up which said ‘we are committed to reducing the use of plastic bags’ which made me think ‘but clearly not cardboard.’

I dont throw my carrier bags in the road so i dont cause a litter problem so why should i be charged for it? And even if i was, my council tax pays for litter clearing.

wbdoyle says:
12 November 2010

Do away with all plastic bags Costco don’t supply bags of any description although they might have the occasional cardboard box which is re-cyclable.I come from a time when there was no such thing as a plastic bag. Ban the plastic!!!!