/ 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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I’m all in favour of charging for plastic carriers. Good topic John. A pity it is not imposed on all shops.
M&S have been charging for a long time now and prompted us to buy reusable bags – inexpensive, better to pack, better to carry, and sit better in the car.

Occasionally we forget to take them with us and reluctantly use plastic bags. How much better if these were biodegradable. We have to buy these for our food bin – we’d use the carriers instead of they were suitable. Kill two birds with one stone.

We’ll rely on the shops to tell us their good causes. I’d prefer these not to be national charities – I ‘d like them to go to local organisations that rely on voluntary donations. Hospices and the elderly’s lunch clubs for example.

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Notoplastic says:
3 October 2015

I know they crumble, but they never disappear. As I understand it, particles of plastic exist forever. We need to stop using it wherever possible. I think we should aim to phase plastic bags out completely!

Duncan – It is likely that the disintegrating bag was made of oxo-degradable plastic. Even when kept in the dark they will disintegrate, albeit more slowly. Although often marketed as biodegradable, this is not an honest description and plastic particles are environmentally harmful. This is a well established problem in the marine environment. Starch-filled polythene was the first widely used sham biodegradable plastic – the starch degrades but small particles of polythene will survive for a very long time.

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Fair enough Duncan, but a lot of uncertainty seems to remain. From the government article for which John has provided a link suggests there is still a lot of uncertainty: “There are no exemptions for biodegradable bags at present. However, the government is considering an exemption to encourage development of a new, genuinely biodegradable, more environmentally friendly bag. This would be introduced as an amendment at a later date.”

Whenever I’ve lived in other countries, I’ve had to take bags to the supermarket in order to avoid a bag charge. It’s a pain to remember to take bags, particularly on unplanned shopping trips.

But I reuse most of the plastic bags that UK supermarkets give me. They are useful for all kinds of things, such as bin liners for small bins.

I get the impression that in the UK non-supermarket bags will also be subject to a charge. This means that going clothes shopping will incur extra charges that would not be incurred in other countries that charge for supermarket bags. Does this mean that clothes shops will thicken their bags to avoid the non-customer-friendly charge?

Or will English shops switch to the American system of paper bags?

Paper bags are not a very good solution. Paper manufacture requires a lot of water and energy and they are far less likely to be reused. For use in countries where it rains frequently it is necessary to waterproof the paper to some extent and this generally greatly impairs biodegradability.

Paper bags are unusual in the US. The process of replacing them with plastic bags started in the 1980s and is nearly complete. I haven’t been asked ‘paper or plastic?’ when in the US for over a decade.

Till operators in the US are quite expert at ringing up your purchases and placing them in a carousel of plastic bags that they spin around for you to remove.

They get quite flustered when you upset their routine because you bring your own bags with you.

In Scotland they charge for any bag, paper , plastic or whatever even for takeaway food. It is a joke in some cases. I didn’t realize that it wasn’t UK wide and now understand why i wasn’t charged for a paper bag in a well known clothes shop in Blackpool earlier this year, I honestly felt like I had won the lottery.

“Non-customer-friendly charge”… you’re talking about 5 pence

Per bag, which you can bet yer bottom $ will go into the back pockets of most independent traders, and the profits of larger stores.
Rip Off !

Thanks for the timely Convo, John. I recall buying a large sports bag for shopping in 1980 and continued to use this for years. I now have a fair collection of reusable bags and keep some in the boot of the car for when they are needed. Checkout operators sometimes start putting groceries in bags even though I take plenty of my own bags.

Included in my collection of reusable bags are some supermarket ‘bags for life’ which have served me well. I have not taken them back for replacement but checkout operators in Tesco have swapped them when helping pack ones that are past their best.

I bought a new ‘bag for life’ in Tesco today. By the time my few purchases arrived home there were two large holes in the bag. It’s obviously much weaker than the older versions and has a slightly rough texture. I presume that the fact that it’s made of recycled plastic is the reason. I appreciate that many people don’t reuse these bags but for those who do, it’s not much use if they are not up to the job. The Waitrose versions seem to be more durable, though they are made of recycled plastic too.

Maybe they should use that money to invest into biodegradable bags and containers. It’s not fair that, as usual, the customer keeps taking the blame for the big industrial waste.
If 5p is not much for me, 5p investment for supermarkets and factories.

William says:
29 September 2015

Since the council stopped giving out free rubbish bags (which we’d all have probably paid for in out council tax anyway) I find the carrier bags a useful alternative. I for one will miss them. And I feel sorry for the online shopper teams who will be working without bags to deliver the weekly shopping to my aging parents, I hope they’re given more time.

This new ruling is going to make life very difficult for home delivery drivers.

I hope the supermarkets have allowed for the extra time they will need as they wait for people to unload their crates.

It makes no difference in Wales. All the Supermarkets deliver to us, and they have to navigate narrow, single-track lanes and boulders, not to mention cows and sheep.

Supermarkets have adopted different strategies, but what happens for Sainsbury is that they impose a compulsory charge per order of 40p, and send the stuff in bags. Tesco ask, as do Waitrose, but Waitrose bags are far stronger and bigger than anyone’s so we always get their deliveries in bags.

john walters says:
29 September 2015

All in favour of a charge if it cuts wastage and pollution

I’m now going to buy bin liners (i.e. plastic bags) instead of re-using supermarket plastic bags. How does that cut waste and polution?

Martin stern says:
29 September 2015

Yes I’m in favour to

I have just watched a video on YouTube. Mercola.com – The dangers of Plastic Bags and the toxic effects they are having on the environment and question why it has taken so long for this country to act when third world countries banned them years ago.

Most charities now have there own brand of durable cloth type bags available to purchase ensuring your contribution is going to where you wish it to go to and not
to the supermarket’s “good cause”.

Like many other bits of legislation the responsible are penalised through the actions of the irresponsible. I find plastic bags useful. They have multiple uses and the ones I get never become litter or ever get trapped over a dolphins head. If I have to pay 5p for a bag am I happy that the money goes to a good cause selected by the retailer? No , I’d rather have a say in where the cash goes. To be honest I’d rather not pay the 5p at all . I’d rather not be penalised for the irresponsibility of others. I’d rather those who misuse plastic bags were directly penalised. If the idea is to get rid of unnecessary packaging get rid of the masses of plastic enveloping most things we buy , far more of a problem than plastic shopping bags. There is far more unnecessary plastic around things in the shopping bag than in the bag itself. So I think this is yet another piece of legislation not really thought through as well as it might have been.

Stupid, badly thought out, idiotic idea….
Fact is most people use plastic carrier bags as bin liners in waste baskets. Now they will now buy bin liners – Result more plastic bin liners will go into landfill and no change in the amount of plastic bags just the name of them.
Ill concieved, ill thought out, knee jerk Idoicy Usual for the UK Government of all leanings P155 up and brewery springs to mind

Obviously some of the people commenting here are too young to remember that paying for bags in shops was the norm at one time. All things seem to go around in circles and we’re just back where we started with this one, with the difference being that this time the money has to go to good causes rather than into the shops coffers. This should apply to all retailers, not just the larger ones.
It is not just the irresponsible people who are responsible for the plastic pollution we now see. Even if we think we are being responsible and for example, use these bags as bin liners they will most likely end up in landfill sites and plastics take a very long time to break down. Yes, a lot of the marine plastic pollution we see is down to littering of one form or another, but plastics are not good for he environment however they are disposed of. They get into the food chain and accumulate in the bodies of those ingesting them and are then passed onto any predators, including humans, higher up the food chain. Whilst it would be very difficult in our modern world, it would be far better to stop using disposable plastic made items all together.

For 20 years I took my own bags and refused to pay for advertising a shop by buying their logo-emblazoned plastic offerings. Then they made them free, so we all used as many as they could foist on us. Then the supermarkets started offering extra loyalty points if you brought your own bags. So I wanted to know where my points for the previous 20 years were! NOW we are expected to comply with a tax on shopping. A tax that has arisen because the supermarkets tried to make us their presence with the free bags. And I use ‘tax’ because that’s what it is – government imposed, no choice – the proceeds go. So, yes, I strongly disapprove!!!

Thanks for the convo, John. As you say we’ve been paying for plastic bags for some time up here in Scotland, and we didn’t start a moment too soon. Welcome to the flock, England, and well done. The only disappointment for me is that the money raised isn’t ring-fenced for environmental causes.

I reuse all of my supermarket carrier bags – there is no such thing as a single use bag! some are used as rubbish bin liners. some for cat litter. others for collecting stuff to go to charity shop who can then reuse the bag for customers.

many supermarkets currently offer recycling of their carrier bags. ocado home delivery will take previous bags for recycling. recycled plastic bags can be used to make fabric, other materials and more plastic bags.

i think the constant claim that they are single use is wrong and discourages recycling. instead of charging for term, more emphasis should be placed on recycling them. i wonder how many bags ocado will get back for recycling once it starts charging for them? i think such a scheme could reduce recycling.

i think any charge shouldn’t be more than a penny or two and that money should go towards recycling initiatives.

Maybe the supermarkets should donate 5p for every bag we use rather than have the customer charged the tax. No supermarket would give away bags for free. It’s factored in with our total spend so now we’re paying twice. As others have mentioned, bags are generally reused for other purposes – we always have some available for refuse in the house. So now we will have to purchase refuse sacks to replace them. On the other side of the coin it would be rather amusing to witness customers juggling their shopping in their arms whilst leaving the store.

Absolute twaddle. Supermarkets and industry create the most waste. Insist they provide paper or biodegradable bags. Why must we pay for the rubbish they give us? Everything in plastic and cardboard boxes not paper bags. Just hype. Don’t be fooled by the so called environmental lobby.

So it looks like I’m going to have to buy bin liners after all these years of using supermarket bags! Not sure this will change my carbon footprint for the better.

When I was young, at the top of every couple’s wedding list, was a shopping basket. Those were the days!

I take a supply of my own bags when I go shopping, have great fun going into supermarkets with their competitors bags. In France though you can’t seem to be able to even buy plastic bags in supermarkets (not in the countryside anyway) so you’re completely stumped and have to put your shopping into your pockets. There’s a lesson for you. I have no problem doing without the plastic bags for environmental reasons, except I do agree that the few I do gather end up as bin liners, so I’ll have to buy bin liners when I run out of excess plastic bags. Will the cost be 5p per bin liner? Good idea about the newspaper wrapping which I’m using for my food recycling already. There are so many free newspapers now that it’s a good way of putting them to good use.