/ 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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lizzi says:
6 November 2015

So I pay for a bag 5p and it breaks as I walk home – do I get a 5p refund or a replacement bag or compensation for faulty goods. And what if it breaks a product in the bag? ? Item of merchandisable quality?

Anyway the idea of giving a multi-use bag that is soft enough to fold and fit in your handbag as a Xmas present sounds good, thoughtful and environmentally friendly.

To those that are bucking the idea of 5 p charge – get real please, and adjust to changes in our life

The “plastic bag charge” for supermarkets appears to have been adopted by all retailers regardless. The 70 microns or less gauge does this include the better quality or thicker bags often offered by High Street chains such as M & S. Are these thicker bags not above the 70 micron limit and therefore not exempt.

A simple way to estimate the thickness of bags is with a digital caliper, which will measure to 0.01 mm or 10 micrometres (microns). They are available for £10 these days. It’s easiest to measure the two layers and halve the reading.

It’s not generally realised that most ‘bags for life’ have a thickness of less than 70 microns. See: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/11892387/Carrier-bag-5p-charge-everything-you-need-to-know.html

Before the charging scheme was introduced I did some measurements on a variety of plastic bags and can confirm that it’s difficult to estimate the thickness by feel, especially since the texture varies.

This piece of supposedly Environmentally Friendly Fiddling could only have been conceived and implemented by a set of politicians who set Mammon as their Guide and Great Redeemer.
The silliness of claiming that one is paying 5p for a SUPB.
One is paying a surcharge which for
” … a number of smaller firms who find it expedient to charge for their bags whereas they previously provided them FOC.”
is straight un-traceable, un-taxable PROFIT.
And for larger companies?
According to WRAP, 8.5 billion SUPBs were issued by the supermarkets alone last year. Wait a minute, that’s 8.5 billion @ 5p = £425 million.
You mean that supermarkets have been subsidizing my shopping, and waste bin liners, to the tune of half a billion quid per year?
Err, well no, ‘coz SUPBs cost minor fractions of a penny each, so this 5p per bag is a Fine.
A fine Fine since the recipients will then take those in-voluntary donations, launder them thru’ their Public Relations Departments, wrap them up in Branded Gift Wrap, and Lady Bountiful like present OUR dosh in THEIR name, to THEIR Chosen Causes.
Sitting in the background chuckling are the Minor followers of Mammon , they who will now be able to slash Central Government’s donations of our taxes to ‘Causes.
Indeed cut taxes …. for the better off.
What a Spiffing Wheeze.

The proceeds go to charity. I hope the nominated charities and the proceeds will be published by the retailers.
One option is not to buy a 5p bag. Take ones you already own or buy cheap reusable ones and remember to take them shopping.

Can anyone tell me who makes the best quality ‘bags for life’ these days? Nowadays they seem to be made of recycled plastic and not nearly as good as the older ones, which would often last for ages.

I’ve seen those wheely-bags. I suspect a model with pneumatic tyres to absorb bumps might find a market but for those who enjoy the exercise a Jaguar/Karimoor rucksack is an even better option. If you can find one with the hip belt and plenty of padding then you can carry a lot of shopping very comfortably over fairly short distances.

John – That sounds like the Tesco Big Green Bag. I mentioned above that they are no longer on sale.

I have a collection of different fabric bags. I bought one of these from Tesco because it had a plastic liner, which would be cleanable. Unfortunately the liner soon disintegrated, presumably because it was made of some type of degradable plastic.

Amazed that noone seems to give their used bags – clean – to a local charity shop. Many of the small charities here do not use boughten bags and have always relied on people like me to pass them on. Now they tell me they are having a problem getting enough!

Having said that, I simply cannot understand anyone moaning about this charge. They must simply be too lazy or disorganised to take their own with them.

While doing a bit of a clear-out of the loft I came across what I recall was the first design of Tesco’s ‘bag for life’. The plastic seemed thicker than current offering, so I compared the weight. The old one weighed 46 g compared with 29 g for a recent bag, and the plastic did not feel as rough, suggesting that it was better quality plastic than what is on offer these days.

Maybe the money-conscious Tesco Marketing people give out the thicker bags for life to younger people and the thinner bags to older people to minimise use of resources? 🙂 🙁

Being a few years ahead of the rest of the UK and with everyone near enough settled into reusable bags and the now lack of “plastic bag tree’s” on every corner near everyone wonders why we got so reliant on flimsy throw away bags.
We have had Sainsbury’s bags for several years with no problems……………..Wifey gets them really loaded direct out of the trolley into the bags in the boot and then tells me to lift them when we get home…………….and I’m the one with the bad fingers……………..They can be very heavy,,,,,,,,near to two hands heavy but they have been standing up to the abuse fine……………

I confess that I had not considered that possibility, but it does seem unlikely. I never asked for a ‘bag for life’ to be replaced until one developed a large hole after a single use recently.

I prefer plastic bags to canvas or hessian for anything that could be damp or dirty because it is easy to clean plastic.

The nice thing about the hessian bags we have is they have a flat bottom so, as you say DeeKay, you can stand them in the trolley, load them, and they stand nicely in the car. Don’t fall all over the place like plastic carriers did. The ones we have also have nicely padded handles, not just flat plastic strips; much kinder on your hands particularly when loaded with bottles. They are also plastic-lined inside but that does deteriorate with use.

Wavechange …………I made it up. 🙂

I have a good collection of canvas and hessian bags and am familiar with the non-durable plastic linings. Those have been relegated for other purposes. The maker has used modern degradable plastics (which are not usually properly degradable) rather than decent polythene that could last for years. Unfit for purpose. 🙁

1. I keep reading about the ‘law’ on plastic bags but no-one seems to know what that law is. Even the government web site doesn’t say.
2. The profit on these bags is astronomical, which explains the shops anxiety to introduce a charge, and of course 20% VAT goes to the government. There is no obligation to donate ‘profits’ to charity and no check on how ‘profits’ are calculated.
3. Re-usable bags are a breeding ground for germs and require constant cleaning, especially when used for loose foodstuffs.

The Gov website says “We expect retailers to donate the proceeds of the scheme to good causes, but it is for them to choose what to do, and which causes to support. Retailers will need to report to us about what they do with the money from the charge, and we will publish this information each year.”

I can live with supermarkets charging (although I DO regard this as a tax and an addition to their profits) because you can plan when to go and take the necessary bags, but I find that the pleasure of shopping and making those lovely impulse purchases has been vastly reduced to the point that I don’t bother. I think it is intensely annoying to choose some lovely clothes or other items only to have them thrown across the counter for me to deal with unless I pay a surcharge ( and I have refused to purchase on more than one occasion). Paper bags could be offered by usually aren’t. Retailers are too happy to blame the government for their lack of service and greed in the same way as kill-joys blame Heath and Safety.

John, “deterrent to an impulse purchase”. One result is it reduces your debt level. Impulse purchases might be blamed for the UK having the highest level of personal debt in the world. A 5p plastic bag charge might produce immense hidden benefits 😀

I can’t believe people moan about paying 5p for a carrier bag!The huge reduction in waste, litter and damage to wildlife is surely worth double that! It is amazing to see most people now bringing their own bags or deciding they (amazingly) don’t now need one for one or two items! This charge should have been introduced decades ago and it is an utter disgrace that the Government, knowing it would drastically reduce plastic bag usage dragged their heels for so long

I totally agree with paying for plastic bags for food shopping, especially in supermarkets, however, it is tricky with impulse purchases on the high street. I do therefore think clothes and the like should be bagged free of charge. There is nothing worse than buying an expensive suit or coat, or shoes/bag only to have to stuff it in an old bag you’ve found in your handbag. Having possibly paid hundreds of pounds for an item, then is it really necessary to have to pay five pence or more for a carrier to keep it prestine on the way home. I think not, surely the shops in this instance can fund a nice bag and make your purchase feel special.

Bertie says:
18 February 2016

With the laws on plastic bags should come laws on the selling of vegetables and household cleaning products to be sold in a replacement packaging in the place of the plastic bags. Before plastic bags we had something called a brown paper bag, does anyone remember these things!!

I support the plastic bag environmental charge for supermarket shopping. However, I am generally an impulse buyer often without a carrier bag in pocket and find myself taking exception in the following cases:
– Plastic bags for clothing and underwear
– Refunded Return
– 250 Employees rule
I begrudge paying 5p for a carrier bag when only buying outer clothes and underwear. Clothing stores have ‘captive’ customers not wanting to emerge from their shops with clothes draped over arm. In this instance and particularly when their plastic bags display bold branding, the clothing store should absorb the charge themselves and donate it to charity.
Also, I had occasion to return a jumper to a Scottish outlet. They kindly issue a refund, but not for their branded plastic carrier bag.
I find it difficult to determine if a charge is legal when you can’t readily establish if the store belongs to a group of more than 250 employees. eg. Spar, Londis,etc

Donna says:
18 February 2016

I may be wrong but I thought the reason stores didn’t charge for bags was a legal one. I thought providing customers with branded plastic bags was a way for companies to market and advertise themselves and because they were advertising in this way it wasn’t something they could legally charge for. I didn’t hear much mention of this when the Government introduce this ‘tax’ – sorry ‘charge’. How has this suddenly become legal?

I have never seen retailers provision of plastic bags as ‘free’, especially since when I walk out of their stores with their brand in hand I become a walking billboard for them. Stores like ASDA , LARADOUTE, JOHN LEWIS, LIDL, TESCOS and other well known retailers offset the provision of plastic bags against free advertising and sometimes advertising is in places they might never knowingly reach.

I have a couple of questions too that I haven’t seen answers to yet. Why is the charge not levied against the manufacturing process of these so called environmental pollutants? Why produce plastic bags while saying they pollute the environmental and then make people pay for them? Wouldn’t the solution be to provide an alternative like say biodegradable bags which should not be charged for? Having said this, are retailers suppose to tell customers they are using biodegradable bags which they should not be charging 5p for? Directly linked to this but another discusion is the fact that I have yet to see concensus among the sciences over the whole damaging the environment debate. Some say we do, some say we don’t. I would like to see this settled- not likely.

As far as where this 5p is concerned and where it is going…”good causes” is it? I don’t recall anybody asking me what I think should be done with the 5p I might spend on plastic bags. Call me cynical but it feels more like the Governments attempt at plugging holes in a debt laden budget at the expense of the consumer.

Could a paper carrier be offered? No good in the rain but perfectly adequate in many instances.

Edward Legg says:
20 February 2016

I am quite happy to pay for plastic bags. Anything to stop the build-up of plastic in urban/rural areas and the world’s oceans.

Edward Legg

I do not object to paying for PLAIN plastic bags, but, bags with supermarket names should be free after all surely thats free advertising for the stores.

Holland and Barret charged me 5p for a paper carrier bag yesterday. is this correct?

I’ve had to accept that the supermarkets now charge for bags. You adjust quite quickly. BUT the thing that annoys me is that John Lewis , M&S etc. etc. charge for a bag to take your other purchases home. What an absolute disgrace that they do not provide paper carrier bags. Buying something for £250 and being charged 5p is an absolute disgrace just because they have not bothered to source and provide paper bags. Why have customers accepted this?Cannot people see that all this has done is to have increased the profits at these stores. The department stores in the UK really ought to think of the customers and stop gloating about increased profits. If people believe that these shops give the money to charity then the general public is more stupid than I thought.