/ 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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Apart from the potential impact on the environment of using less plastic bags which is great, I can understand that shoppers are annoyed at having to pay for bags for clothing, etc. However it would be really nice if those shoppers could remember that it is the Head Office of those shops which has interpreted the government rules and not the assistant serving you at the till. Therefore shouting at the shop assistant for something they have no control over is not helpful

I don’t have a problem paying 5p for a carrier bag. What I do object to is the fact that after paying 5p I am advertising the shop I have just bought the bag from. So in actual fact I am doing their advertising and paying for the priviledge. I do when I remember take my own bags.


This is all about protecting the environment by reducing the use, and discarding, of plastic bags. To achieve that we all need to take positive actions. It is not, surely, about spending 5p on a bag, it’s about not needing the bag in the first place – stick a bag in your pocket or have a reusable bag. Just think ahead. And if you do buy expensive clothes that need protection then the extra you might have to pay for a suitable bag is insignificant, isn’t it?

I agree, Malcolm. I take a couple of newish ‘bags for life’ when shopping for clothes.

It shouldn’t really affect you if it were raining John – towels to dry you off and a change of clothes (assuming the underwear is, well, you know…..) . That might do more than just break the ice.

But a strange approach to avoid paying 5p?

My goodness. I’m getting a bit worried about the revelations of Convo regulars. This morning, Beryl recounted climbing through a window and now John is turning into an exhibitionist. 🙂

Yes John,,,,,,,,,,,,,,Not enough fun and too many one hit wonders

Your plastic bag issue like most comes down to money for many when in fact it was not about money but about a nicer looking Britain and a much better world for the other inhabitants of this planet……..It will take decades to rid the place of these things…………..

The recent winds stirred up a lot of very old bags that had obviously been hidden in fields and so forth although around the industrial estates were worse but it has brought to many peoples attention here just how well the place looked without them hanging on bushes, hedges and trees everywhere………..

It’s nothing like what is was like a few years ago in the hay day of the disposable plastic bag but we’ll be glad when they blow away………They’ll have to blow away because as always the council will not tidy them up

So although we thought we’d seen the end of the things we got a reminder of how it once was not so very long ago and it for me anyhow who had no questions about having proper bags again it has laid to rest any questions about the wisdom of charging 5p for one
We for the most part stopped using them many years ago but we often noticed others looking at us with our proper bags filling our trolleys…………..

Before the charges we used 190,000,000 of the things,,,,,,,,last year we used just 30,000,000……..That 30m number still surprised me……..So one in six customers still feel the need to but one shot bags????
I am still surprised why people would still regularly walk into a shop and pay 5p for something they dont need……………let alone that many others see these people as neglecting their duty………….
The lame excuses about reuse as small bin bags does not stand up because there are 1000s of cheaper similar sized small bin liners for sale in the same shop much cheaper than 5p each………….
It is 5p you dont need to spend yet I am sure the ones spending these endless 5p’s are all to willing to complain about prices and energy costs
Perhaps their wage packet of pension pot is larger than others

Many here now see it now as a duty to keep these things out of circulation and it didnt take 6 months for that change of attitude to start because we could see the advantages of a much better looking area within that time………..

There are proper bags for sale at almost every big supermarket checkout for 30 or 40p and they hold a multiple of what the one use rubbish hold yet some are still willing to fill their trolleys with 8 or 10 disposable bags……….
Maybe they dont realise that others may be looking on very doubtful about these folks……..
Maybe these are the same folks who park their Merc etc in the pick up zone for over an hour while they “drop in quickly” for something………….
Or are the ones who park in the blue badge areas without a blue badge often making their directly for coffee with friends………..
I have a blue badge in my car
I’m in a Sainsbury’s car park more often than most…….
My youngest works in Sainsbury’s,,,,,,My eldest once was a manager in another branch as she worked there her years in UNI and when she came home she continued for a time here,,,,,
Our friend is the carpark hound dog so we know a little about the goings on’s there………………

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Even own brand is editable Duncan
My daughters assure me the staff in all the stores my daughters have worked in from Edinburgh to Lisburn and Ballymena have been much happier than other push like hell stores where the check out staff are timed endlessly to max out their work……..We have friends in other stores also and the next best for employees around here is ASDA
I am prepared to pay for the smiles
Its not as easy a job as many see it though
My youngest spends a load lot time putting the shelves back together while shoppers mess the whole thing up right in front of her face………..
Her store is coming up to its 20th and it’s amazing how many staff have been there the entire time
If for nothing else I’ll back and use the company for that…………..Cheap goods are fine but job security and satisfaction is much more important

One has to back ones own at all costs

That’s easy. Not intended to be sexist, but statistics have shown that men tend to get more use out of their clothes purchases. I don’t know if it’s true that some clothes get worn once and then find their way to the charity shop when the wardrobe exceeds capacity.

I always found it disgusting and antisocial to see people shopping in supermarkets trundling away with full trolleys, having used several “free” plastic bags. Supermarket shopping is obviously a regular thing and I could never see why people didn’t prepare for it. I personally have been using bags for life or strong purchased bags for many years.
I am somewhat ambivalent about having to purchase a bag for the odd one-off purchase at, say, a bookshop or music shop, and, if it wasn’t for the fact that the charge of 5p goes to charity, I would be a little bit annoyed.

It’s difficult to see a workable alternative to the current system. It has certainly cut down use of bags and perhaps encouraged more people to think about environmental issues.

It is encouraging to learn the use of plastic bags has been reduced but I was under the impression that all plastics were harmful to the environment so why are people having to pay 5p for one? I would be happy to pay 5p for any bag if it was not made of plastic.

It’s a few years ago since I went up a ladder to gain access to my house Wavechange but I do recall the anguish at not being able to access my own home st the time. However, if I ever find myself on public transport with a guy clutching loose newly bought wares draped over his arms I will know his identity………….beware the Ides of March, the silly season approaches 🙂

Just the sort of reason why I don’t buy the telegraph. How newsworthy (and reliable) is this?
Representative sample – 2784 people from what backgrounds? Out of perhaps 35 million shoppers?
Figures extrapolated to £26671664? Bit precise for an extrapolation based on such a small sample.
It was reported that before the charge 8.5 bn bags were given away. Dropped by 80% post-charge – so down to 1.7 bn. But the claimed stolen bags amount to around 530 million. So one in three carrier bags are not paid for? Well, it might be true, it might not. I’d want a good deal more evidence from reputable sources to believe it.
Perhaps supermarkets with self service tills need to withdraw carrier bags and only supply (sell) them on demand.

That particular company make a practice of getting into the newspapers with”surveys” that help journalists fill pages. As to the value of the surveys I suspect they are laughably unscientific.

Perhaps Which? could lead to a change in regime where it is mandatory that “surveys” have to be published in full with questions and the targeted respondents. It would be a great step forward in better educating consumers.

One of the advantages of seeing questions used in surveys is that it can be very easy to ask questions in a way that might skew the results. Seeing this in action is highly educational. 🙂

I very much support your suggestion regarding publication of questions and details of respondents when publishing results of surveys. I would add a requirement that respondents should be able to view all the questions before starting a survey. This is not always possible.

I know it was a provocative post but it seems rather likely that some bags are being taken without payment from self-service checkouts. To start with my local Tesco had a bag gentleman with a bundle of 5p bags attached to a belt, ready to issue them when needed. The next week he had gone and each checkout had a stock of bags waiting for use, as before the charge was introduced.

I suggest the supermarkets get rid of the 5p bags and use ‘bags for life’ instead, taking advantage of the fact that you have to ask for them. Plastic bags are not generally recycled via household waste collection and a free replacement offers a minor incentive to return old bags. I’m guessing that used bags collected by supermarkets do get recycled.

I cannot believe that the big supermarkets have plastic bags simply hanging at self checkouts……………..
Neither can I understand what all the griping is about………………..It’s simple………If you cannot be bothered taking proper bags then pay the 5p
We here didnt get Which to start a topic about this and neither did Scotland…………..We recognised there was a problem and something had to be done about it………..

England was last to introduce the plastic bag charge and the rest of the UK is behind Wales in introducing mandatory display of food hygiene ratings wherever food is sold. There is a lot to be said for testing out new legislation in one area and if necessary refining it before the rolling it out over the UK.

When I visited Wales last year I was delighted to see the number of pubs etc. that were using their food hygiene rating of 5 in marketing. I know that the FHR only applies to the day of testing – like an MOT.

Disregarding the vagaries of media reports, old habits die hard with some folk and as long as they have continued access to their endearing relationship with plastic bags they are content. Environmental issues are the responsibility of everyone else seems to be the mindset of some nonchalant individuals.

Why do people pay 5p for a potentially pollutant item that is detrimental to the environment anyway? And does failure to comply by resorting to theft justify the means?

Time to banish them altogether, but if someone is looking for a plastic bag to steal there has been one stuck on one of the neighbours trees now for days……………………

Here here Beryl,,,,,,,,,Get rid of them altogether and the moaning minnies will soon get over it.

While I completely agree with the charge for a plastic carrier in supermarkets, groceries are already packaged so need no further wrapping. My complaint is with clothes retailers who now believe there is also no need to wrap garments we’ve bought. It is still necessary and desirable for new clothes to be wrapped so why can’t a paper bag be supplied, not a carrier, just a bag which can then be put in the customers own bag? The cost of the plastic carrier was always included in the cost of the garments prior to the introduction of the legislation, but I haven’t noticed a price reduction. I will happily pay for a paper bag but not a plastic carrier. Ask for clothes purchases to be wrapped in tissue paper, most stores will oblige but none that I have tried have actual volunteered it yet.
It is disgraceful that stores considerate it appropriate to sell garments without wrapping and even more so that their only alternative is to buy a plastic carrier, the thing the legislation is designed to eliminate.

I agree with the ban on supermarket bags but I do think stores such as John Lewis should switch to paper carriers for clothing. I spent nearly £200 on a leather jacket and had to pay for a poor quality plastic bag. Uniqlo can do it so others should follow.

I campaigned and lobbied for a charge on free plastic bags for over a decade and i am so glad that this was eventually adopted in England following the sensible implementation of a charge in other parts of the UK. This was all about managing people’s behaviour. I spent many years monitoring shoppers behaviour. Despite encouragement to shoppers to reuse bags this largely did not work. Only a very small proportion of shoppers brought bags with them when they entered a shop. The vast majority did not remember to do so or chose not to bother when there was no charge for new bags whereas in the few shops that already charged for bags such as Lidl shoppers behaviour was completely different. Effectively a charge is motivating shoppers to do the right thing and bring bags with them although some (a minority) still did not remember or make the effort although those on very low incomes clearly made an effort to avoid bag charges because 5p every time was an expense they could not afford. The free bag mentality was that bags could be taken in any number irrespective whether they were needed or not. I repeatedly observed shoppers in supermarkets taking 15 or more bags with only one or two items in each bag. The long term effect on the environment was unsustainable and ultimately there was no choice but to introduce what was in effect a financial penalty for excess and unnecessary consumption of plastic bags. It was a pity that England was so slow in introducing this measure . Try standing by a landfill site for a while and observe the tens of thousands of shop provided bags and on a windy day watch where many of them end up. Read up on the science of the degradation timescales of plastics. We simply could not continue to allow such huge quantities of plastics to fill landfill and contaminate the environment.

The charge has been effective, though, John in that apparently 80% fewer bags have been distributed that would have ended up in landfill, or worse. However, I agree about the principle of not being able to pay to pollute which applies to many, not just the well off. We have to consider the practicalities of bags; people will go shopping without them either forget, or impulse buy. If the bag is charged for then it may remind them in future to take their own bags; it does remind us.

I presume that the reason for the introduction of the bag charge and giving the proceeds to charity is a way of making the change palatable. ‘Free’ plastic bags were there before most of us were using supermarkets, but the supermarkets made the problem much greater. Hopefully the free bags will be phased out. Hopefully this will happen sooner than later because the charities that have benefited from the income will have something to say.

John points out a drawback of congestion charging, but presume that it is another example of compromise and whether you avoid driving in certain areas for environmental reasons or to avoid the charge, at least they cut down on traffic.

Over the years, taking bags to the supermarket has become as automatic as remembering to take my wallet – and feeling silly when I have arrived without them. I’m getting into the habit of taking bags when heading into town. Previously I did this only if I went specifically to buy something.

Like Paul, I have seen people help themselves to bags. Even when they were ‘free’ the supermarkets could have helped by keeping them under control.

Here in Wales we were the first country to introduce the 5p bag charge 4 years ago – and what a wonderful WIN WIN situation has been achieved!
Our population is only 3 million, we have reduced plastic waste by about 70% and donated about £22 million to charity! approx £5.5 million per year!
So come on England! – with a population of 53 million – about 18 times the size of Wales? – just think – what you could be giving to charity? £100 million per year? Go for it!!
I don’t think enough public emphasis has been put on the benefits to charities. It soon becomes a habit to take shopping bags with you – that’s what my mother did all her life, and I did too until supermarkets and their plastic bags came along.
I also don’t use the small plastic bags on the roll very much – most vegetables are so clean I put them straight in the trolley, just use the bags for loose mushrooms, sprouts etc – less bags to put out for the dustmen!
So WIN WIN all the way – you know you like it!!!

Wendiwu says:
27 February 2016

I don’t understand why shops/supermarkets don’t use paper carriers. In US supermarkets we were given brown paper bags made of several layers so they were strong.

Last week whilst driving along the bypass of one of middle England’s historic country towns I was appalled to see the number of plastic bags adorning the roadside trees and shrubbery. The function of a bypass is to divert traffic congestion and air pollutants away from our inner cities and towns, so why are people now littering and polluting our beautiful green areas with discarded plastic bags?

I would question the conscience of charity organisations and other good causes who stand to benefit from the proceeds of money donated from something that is sold and which ultimately is destined to ruin the environment and our beautiful countryside.

Plastic bag trees are an unwelcome addition to the landscape and the sooner they are done away with the better.

Before we had the plastic bag ban if that’s the right word but that’s the way I see it as being a ban for everyone who has to penny pinch whilst the wealthy continue to fill their trolleys with the things
Anyone. . School children were asked where did they think plastic bags come from and many answered off the plastic bag tree’s
I was so surprising yet so obvious after the event as such

I thought the main reason for by-passes was to let traffic get on more quickly to where it is going rather than keep pollution out of towns or villages. . . All the protests and objections I’ve seen over the years have been shopkeepers etc complaining that it will take business out of their village
Your take on it Beryl is a new one to me but yes it will remove pollution from villages etc

I think we can safely agree that allowing traffic to “get on more quickly to where it is going” will greatly assist in the reduction of air pollutants and congestion in our inner cities, towns and villages.

If children grow up with the notion that plastic bags grow on trees, I don’t hold out much hope for the future environment DeeKay 🙁

My children are very aware about plastic bags but some town children are getting very removed from reality
I would like to see a reduction in pollution because I feel the idea of letting it blow away doest really get rid of it. . .There is little way to get rid of except not make it in the first place and although I have as much wind and sun as I can manage I still like my oil but I probably have more of an idea how beneficial oil really is and would like to see more of it preserved for longer

The root cause of plastic bag trees is not the plastic bags, and other rubbish that accumulates along our roads and in the countryside, but the kind of people who discard them. Unfortunately our society is littered with antisocial people who make life more difficult for others.

So what we really need to do is to remove a percentage of the people, , they are the problem, ,

Those who throw everything around them wilfully need themselves to be disposed of so as to have disposable plastic bags available for the few who are very tidy

What about the amounts of these bags that are in the middle of our oceans and building up on beaches everywhere every year. .
Are you out on the beaches every spring with your little extended arm thingy gathering the 1000s of bits of plastic up many of which are wasted packaging some of which has made its from our very own recycling bins half ways around the globe only to be discarded again and float out to sea

What about the marine life who have been shown to have ingested plastic and are suffering or dying/dead as a result and that’s before we into the toxins leached out of these plastics which are a threat to entire species

There is the bad tasting kettle topic which is pretty certain to be plastic in origin
So do some not all of the human race take precedent over every other organisms on earth just so some can avail themselves of disposable carrier bags
Disposable plastic bags are not a need, , they are convenience with better alternatives

DeeKay, regrettably removing people is not an option. We will always have antisocials, thieves, litter louts, murderers, warmongers, it seems as part of the human race.

regrettably removing people is not an option??

Regrettably. . .

Deekay, as in: it is not an acceptable solution to the problem. It seems that the mix of people in the human race is something we need to live with.

I’ll retain my opinion on the matter, , ,Regrettably?

Not unless you introduce some form of state enforced birth control…

I agree, John, but I don’t know how we tackle the problem. Maybe if we get young children involved in organised litter picking it might make them aware of the problem before they become adolescent litter louts. I rarely see older people dropping litter apart from cigarette ends and the occasional empty packet.

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I must be lucky. I have a Tesco less than a mile away from where I live and see very little litter in the car park or nearby. I thought that the staff might be clearing up rubbish but the odd can or bottle seems to stay in the same place for ages. The nearest Lidl, M&S and Waitrose car parks are tidy too.

If I go into the nearest city I see plenty of examples of people discarding the remains of their lunch, even when bins are provided nearby.

Banishing something that humans can well live without is preferable to the damage caused to the only place in the great scheme of things on which all life depends, planet earth for which we are the caretakers and we can’t live without Malcolm. The choice is ours.

Beryl, I agree with two of your comments – banish polluting products we can live without (my words) and “we can’t live without Malcolm” (your words). 🙂

Well I never?

I’m sure your nearest and dearest would agree with your concluding sentence Malcolm but plastic bag trees? Which reminds me of my late father who, during his final years as a widower use to throw his used teabags onto a tree outside his bedroom window. He was not terribly impressed when I made frequent reference to his teabag tree!

The tree was confined to his own property though and probably provided some nourishment in the form of compost when the teabags eventually fell to the ground…………..but apologies for veering a bit off topic 🙂

We were taken by surprise recently when, for a couple of days, a minibus containing people undertaking community service, turned up and they proceeded to neatly trim the edges of the grass verges along the road. Another more useful task would be harvesting the litter off plastic bag trees perhaps (and picking litter from alongside roads)?

Malcolm you could have seized the opportunity of the moment and popped out with a few suggestions. Most villages have an army of volunteers to pick up litter, the problem always seems worse on main roads where plastic bags cling firmly to branches and are harder to remove.