/ Money, Shopping, Travel & Leisure

New plastic bag charges for England – are you happy to pay?

plastic bags

People in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland have been paying for plastic bags for some time and now England is joining in. In this guest contribution, Which? Convo regular John Ward asks ‘will it work?’

From Monday 5 October 2015 it will become compulsory for shops with more than 250 workers overall to charge for plastic bags, so most of the high street stores are covered.

It won’t apply to franchises and shops in a ‘symbol’ group if the franchise holder or symbol trader has fewer than 250 staff, even if the overall group has a larger number. Shops that don’t have to charge can do so if they want to (and can do what they like with the money) and shops can charge more if they want to.

Plastic bag charges: the finer details

So far, so good – but there’s more. A lot more. The levy applies to single use carrier bags. These are defined as ‘unused, plastic, with handles, and 70 microns thick or less’. The finer details are set out in government advice to retailers if you can bear to read them.

Government officials must have had a great time concocting this particular set of rules and making sure nothing would slip through a hole in the regulations.

For ‘bags for life’ it explains what counts as a ‘returnable multiple-reuse bag’. It’s too nerdy to repeat in full, but they’re exempt if at least 5p is charged for them and they are replaced free of charge when worn out. The rules also make it clear that gussets don’t count in the dimensions, nor do the handles unless they are on wavy top bags. I’m so glad they went the extra mile on that.

There’s also a whole list of items that shops won’t have to charge for (including uncooked meat, fish, unwrapped food, dry cleaning, rhyzomes, axes, and live aquatic creatures in water). They’ve thought of everything messy, and they’ve even got some rules for shops that put the cornflakes in with the rhyzomes (must charge, if you’re interested).

Home deliveries and click-&-collect services will be required to comply and the major supermarkets will likely charge an average of 40p per home delivery. You can opt for no bags – but your groceries will be loose in the totes.

The benefits of playing for plastic bags

So why is this happening? Basically to discourage the use of plastic, which consumes fossil fuels during manufacturing and leads to a lot of litter after use. Defra says:

‘In 2014 over 7.6 billion single-use plastic bags were given to customers by major supermarkets in England. That’s something like 140 bags per person, equivalent to 61,000 tonnes in total. They take longer than other bags to degrade in the environment, can damage wildlife, and are extremely visible when littered in our towns, parks and the countryside.’

They also interfere with watercourses and are harmful to wildfowl, aquatic mammals and other creatures. It’s estimated that over the next 10 years the benefits will include:

  • An overall benefit of over £780 million to the UK economy
  • Up to £730 million raised for good causes
  • £60 million savings in litter clean-up costs
  • Carbon savings of £13 million

Retailers are ‘expected’ to donate the proceeds from the sale of plastic bags to ‘good causes’ – but good causes are not necessarily the same as registered charities. The guidance makes clear that this is not a tax and that the money from the charge does not go to the government. It is for retailers to choose what to do, and which causes to support.

Retailers will need to report to Defra about what they do with the money from the charge, and this information will be published each year. The charge in Wales has already generated millions of pounds for good causes.

So will you willingly pay the new charges on 5 October, knowing that your money is going to some ‘good causes’? Or would you rather things stay as they are and leave it up to the shopper to take a reusable bag or not? I’m glad the charge is coming to England. In fact, I wish it had happened sooner.

This is a guest contribution by Which? Convo community member John Ward. He originally shared this idea in the Which? Convo Ideas lounge. All opinions are John’s own, not necessarily those of Which?

Are you happy to pay for plastic shopping bags in supermarkets?

Yes (63%, 1,750 Votes)

No (35%, 984 Votes)

Don't know (2%, 62 Votes)

Total Voters: 2,796

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The charge sounds like a laudable attempt to reduce the waste of plastic bags. But why are we so addicted to plastic in every aspect of our lives? As a society we use one-time only, plastic bottles, soup containers and other receptacles. Why can’t companies produce biodegradable containers? There are many available which prevent spillage. Plastic causes destruction to our wildlife, rivers and the oceans. It is time we got serious about this beyond a few plastic bags.

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While weeding my reading list I found this Defra report entitled ‘Review of standards for biodegradable plastic carrier bags’: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/485904/carrier-bag-biodegradable-report-2015.pdf

The problem is that most of the supposedly biodegradable bags are not broken down quickly enough and can cause mayhem in the environment.

I agree. we should concentrate on producing less waste, not allowing the same amount but making it biodegradable. That does not save increasingly scarce resources. And what value does this degraded plastic add to the landfill?

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This includes junk from charities. I receive Christmas cards, drinks mats, memo pads, address stickers, pens and begging letters from them (not every week though!). This is expensive “marketing” where presumably the cost is exceeded by the donations it recovers (a bit like Which?’s peculiar advertising on the tv perhaps – what is it all about? They won’t tell). It does not seem right that they operate in this way.

And while we’re about it, the only newspaper I buy is the Saturday DT, mainly for the tv guide, motoring and money sections, certainly not the (lack of news-)paper. But out of the total weight of 1535g, the bit I use is 221g – just 14%. Newspapers should pay a weight tax.

Compare this with a fact-filled Which? collection this month – 407g, and a very informative and entertaining Private Eye weighing in at just 79g.

A War on Waste! (Not original like Keep Britain tidy, but appropriate 🙂 )

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I meet and I speak to our postman and we cannot refuse to take the rubbish
Whether he would be in trouble or not I dont know but he is expected to deliver endless nationwide company adds and local Spar etc where we never go flyers
Why should we have to take this stuff. . .Why can we not be allowed to say NO MORE
It’s just filling up the recycle boxes and the fact we send it to recycling is not the answer. . It took loads of energy to produce, ,print and transport what to me is rubbish
I dont want to argue with the postmen as they are very good and they are only doing their job so are in”that position”
I already understand that a postman must deliver what he has to deliver

Paper is biodegradable but represents a huge waste of resources if it goes straight in the bin. My junk mail goes in a wastepaper basket and only gets ‘read’ to decide whether it goes into the recycling bin or through the shredder. Thankfully the rise in postal charges has substantially cut the amount of post-paid mail.

Wave, , Have a look at recycling “glossy” paper. .. It is not good stuff

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I know, DK. One of the reasons is that the bacteria and other bugs that biodegrade paper work best on rough surfaces. Thick wadges of paper are not too good either, and paper that is waxed to make it water-resistant (e.g. paper shopping bags) can be remarkably resistant to degradation.

The main point is that we need to stop wasting paper.

Sorry DK. I see you are referring to recycling glossy paper whereas I’m thinking of biodegradation. I had not realised that glossy paper is not good for recycling but I know now. I’m not allowed to vote down my earlier comment. 🙁

Wave, , No need for the sorry’s. . I read stuff all the time and too quickly I see what I want to see but it shows you eventually take the time to re-read what you write and what you were replying to. . .I do this also but the time allowed for editing should be a little longer, ,
Everyone can see you mean well
I’ll not be going to town on spelling or grammar either but I try my best even if my fingers play havoc with my spelling

I hoped that the plastic bag charges would put an end to most of the bags that charities put through my letterbox. To start with, the number seemed to decrease, but normal service has been resumed.

The easy way to get rid of the wasted newspaper is to stop buying printed newspapers. I did that about ten years ago when my local newsagent went out of business and I wish I had done this sooner.

I read the BBC news and seldom watch it and find I can “digest it” better. . . On the dark evenings it can use up most of the “soaps” few hours
We havnt bought a paper in many years

The only beneficiary of this stupid rule are the supermarkets.

Strangely enough we have never been in the habit of throwing bags out to blow around the countryside and we always re used the shopping bags to store kitchen rubbish, as biodegradable paper bags etc are not strong enough. Now we have run out – guess what – I am now buying “proper” bin liners at greater expense, hence the supermarket benefiting although the amount of plastic used is the same.

If we were REALLY interested in saving plastic we would ban selling water in bottles when tap water is more than adequate!

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Let’s hope these don’t get loose in your house and consume the insulation on your wiring. Perhaps add them to landfill?

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Thanks for the information about the new plastic-degrading bacterium, Duncan.

It produces an esterase enzyme that can only attack polyesters, so it will not help with plastics such as polythene and polypropylene.

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I guess that Malcolm’s wiring insulation is PVC, so that should be safe too. The kettle is mainly stainless steel and its replacement will have no plastic.

Susan says:
12 March 2016

I don’t mind the charge as I always take my own. However, Ocado do not have an option for delivering shopping without bags. So you get charged for bags you don’t need then they refund you for the bags you send back, in my case all of them. I contacted them but they say they can’t deliver without bags even though Tesco and Sainsburys do! It’s mad, so I’m getting picky with them and making sure I get all of them refunded which feels petty but justified.

Susan, Waitrose also gives you the option whether to accept bags or not when you place your online order.

Pelly says:
6 April 2016

Why can’t shops revert to paper bags & sacks which can easily be recycled? We happily used them for years before plastic versions came along!

Perhaps now they’ve had success with plastic carriers the Government could really make an impact on waste by ensuring that domestic appliances – large and small – last longer and were repairable – so we stop chucking them out before they’ve had a decent working life.

Companies urge us to buy new products and that is often regarded as good for the economy. As I see it, the government is too supportive of industry and I don’t see much chance of introducing legislation that would require industry to make products that are repairable and to hold stocks of the parts needed to effect repairs. If we push hard enough, the government may accede to a demand for longer guarantees, or consumers could push for them. Longer guarantees would encourage manufacture of repairable products and availability of spares because the manufacturer would have to pay for repairs, either directly or by reimbursement of retailers.

My view is that the environment is more important than the economy, so I keep products going for as long as is sensible. I would not want an old computer or phone but with most household goods there is usually no rapid design improvements, whatever the adverts may claim. I have decided to replace my 34 year old Electrolux chest freezer. It is still working but the compressor is wearing and using more energy than it should. I might still have had a fridge bought at the same time but the door seal had split through more frequent use and no spare was available.

It would be good to have more Convos about how we can all help minimise our impact on the environment.

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Unfortunately you are nearly ten years too late, Duncan, but I have bookmarked the page. I did look at the possibility of replacing the seal at the time because I have seen this done with refrigeration equipment in our labs at work, but could not find anything suitable for my old Hoover fridge. Interestingly, the seal on the old freezer is still in good condition, probably because it was opened infrequently. I hope your advice on Which? Convo has encouraged some others to keep their appliances going.

Duncan how do I know when the door seals on my fridge freezer have “gone”? Since the warmer weather my fridge is not keeping to the recommended temperature about 5-7 degrees. Its gone up to 10 and stays there on setting 5. If I turn the setting up to max at 7 it turns itself off! It’s getting on a bit (like its owner!) must be 13 + years old. The freezer compartment seems be working Ok so no problems in that dept!

PS I think I have veered off topic.

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Duncan most of the instructions are written in German. It is an integrated appliance and came with the Moben (who are no longer operating) kitchen when it was installed. Model No CB 18M – 16M/1C 70/30.

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Many thanks Duncan, I don’t think the prob,em lies with the seals as you say. I was hoping it would hang on until I move, if not, in view of its age I will probably replace it if it goes before. Your advice is very much appreciated anyway.

If you are in a position of chucking it or a cheap repair …. how about some soft malleable gasket.

I thought of the idea and now some handy instructions:
or possibly better

My mobile makes and receives calls and texts, is 10 years old, and has had one new battery. It’s all I need (I think!). So why should I change it every couple of years? Well, to keep up with my peers and get the latest toys of course. It seems strange to me that what was the latest thing that satisfied us a couple of years ago is now inadequate for our needs.

As we don’t manufacturer many mass-produced things in this country I don’t think our economy depends much on continually buying new products. It helps EU countries much more than us. Brexit gives us the opportunity to do our own thing if we so choose.

I’d like to see Which? do much more to support decent products that are repairable and durable. They generally are the “real value for money” option even for people beguiled by cheap initial price. Perhaps a heavy disposal tax might persuade us to buy more carefully? However, looking back through Which? campaigns I cannot see a single one directly aimed at better products. Have I missed some? They only seem concerned with services.

Convos are fine, but they are all talk. We need something to stimulate action.

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I would like to see a move towards encouraging people to buy mobile phones outright rather than paying for a contract where the monthly payment covers both usage and the one of many payments (often 24) towards the cost of the phone. Towards the end of the contract, the combination of marketing and peer pressure ensures that most people will take out a new contract and acquire a shiny new phone. Not everyone succumbs, of course. Old and unloved phones may be sold, left unused in a drawer or passed on to elderly parents who have yet to discover what a smartphone can do.

Getting back to the topic on the card, I wonder if we can further cut down on use of plastic for bags. ‘Bags for life’ are not as good as they used to be. As far as I am aware they include recycled plastic, which is betrayed by a rougher texture than early versions, and the ones I have compared with early ones were thinner. There are so cheap that some treat them as single use bags.

We have hessian “bags for life”. They’ve lasted well for several years now.

Incidentally, I wonder how many demand free replacement of “bags for life” when they reach their demise?

I have hessian and canvas bags but ‘bags for life’ are useful for carrying around in a coat pocket.

I exchange worn out ‘bags for life’ because I don’t believe that plastic bags are recycled, so should go in the bin for non-recyclable waste. At my previous home that was a black bin and now it is a green one. It beggars belief that councils have not standardised on colour coding. Maybe they have not considered we might get confused when visiting family and friends around the country.

Life’s tough isn’t it? We also have a blue plastic bin (plastics, metal and glass), a plastic box for paper, a small plastic brown bin for food waste and the ubiquitous grey/black plastic bin for general waste. Maybe they were all made out of recycled plastic bags?

We’d be well advised to campaign to reduce unecessary packing and packaging. I’ve had deliveries from online suppliers in hugely oversized cardboard boxed filled with crumpled paper, polystyrene chips, inflated plastic pillows. Why can’t they pack them economically?

Years ago people started making street “furniture” – bollards, seats, waste bins etc – out of recycled plastic waste, featuring PET largely if I remember rightly. They looked (and still do) pretty awful particularly when they tried to simulate wood.

It’s more than tough. Properly segregated waste can be recycled but add in other materials and it soon becomes worthless.

The composition of recycled plastics used for street furniture etc. is often stated as mixed plastics. I have used recycled plastic sheet, equivalent to 19mm plywood and that has survived for years in a damp environment. It is not seen. That was a blend of high density polythene and polypropylene.

It’s really about which supermarket is prepared to take the initiative when ethics v competition enter the equation, which led me to research the most ethical of supermarkets.

According to @ ethicalconsumer.org – The Most Ethical Supermarkets – Shopping guide from Ethical Consumer, Booths Supermarkets come top of the list with The Coop second and M&S third. Bottom three are Morrisons, Lidl and Asda. It makes interesting reading.

Just been to my local Tesco to buy loose fruit and been told that even though the government mandatory charge does not apply, Tesco’s policy is to charge for every bag regardless of contents.

Tesco has announced that it is to phase out 5p bags: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/aug/07/tesco-to-end-sales-of-5p-carrier-bags

The original ‘Bags for Life’ were durable but modern ones are thinner and made of recycled plastic and don’t last long, and the ones from other supermarkets seem as bad. I have decent reusable bags for when I go to the supermarket but plastic bags are handy to keep in a coat pocket. I don’t mind if ‘Bags for Life’ cost £1 as long as they are fit for the purpose.

We use the box-shaped jute/hessian bags. They pack better and sit more securely in the car. Had them years now. Just a bit of discipline to remember to take them with us. Perhaps the shop should send a reminder to my phone? 😀

I remember brown paper carrier bags with thin handles that left grooves in your finger joints if you carried heavy ones any distance.

Brown paper bags have adhesive which attracts cockroaches.