5p plastic bag charge: all you need to know

From Monday 5 October, large retail businesses in England will be required to charge customers at least 5p for each single-use plastic bag. BBC Countryfile Magazine has the lowdown on what that means for you or your business.

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Why are some shops being forced to charge by the government?

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Plastic bags take longer than other bags to degrade and are a danger to wildlife on land and at sea. By introducing a compulsory charge, the scheme aims to reduce the number of single-use plastic carrier bags in England significantly. 94% of all sea birds in the North Sea have been found with plastic in their stomachs.

Do customers really need a ban to change their habits?

Research shows that the average home already contains 40 plastic bags. Despite this, in 2014, each person in England was given an average of 140 single-use plastic bags from major supermarkets – that’s over 7.6 billion bags, and 61,000 tonnes of un-biodegradable plastic waste, in just one year.

A considerable reduction in single-use plastic bags has occurred since similar legislation was introduced in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Wales saw a reduction in plastic bag consumption of 78% in the first three years after its scheme was introduced. During the same period, the use in England rose by 12.7%.

What counts as a “large business”?

According to the legislation, a “large” business is any retailer with 250 employees or more (including retail and administrative staff alike). This includes fashion chains and DIY stores as well as supermarkets. The charge is not a tax – large businesses must report their actions to government, but they decide what to do with the money raised. The government is encouraging them to donate it to charitable causes.

What about small businesses?

Small retailers can voluntarily charge for plastic bags, but some have said that they would also like the compulsory charge to apply to them. The Chief Executive of the Association of Convenience Stores says “Independent retailers in England support the introduction of a universal 5p single-use carrier bag charge, with 15% already having their own voluntary scheme in place.”

Are there any exceptions?

Lots, and this has provoked a degree of criticism from supporters of the general idea and fears that it will confuse both customers and retail workers. Paper bags in England will be exempt, which they aren’t in Wales, but there are no exemptions for biodegradable bags for the time being. You’re entitled to a free plastic bag if your buy items from a list of exemptions, which includes uncooked fish, meat and poultry products, potatoes, prescription drugs and seeds. You’re also able to get a free plastic bag in airports, on trains, ships or aeroplanes. Why? We’re not really sure.

What’s the problem?

Polls suggest that a majority of the public support a plastic bag levy being introduced, but the Taxpayers’ Alliance has called it a “punitive, government-imposed solution which will add £67 to the cost of living per household in England over 10 years”.

Many believe England should introduce a universal charge like the Welsh government has. In England, the charge only applies only to single-use plastic bags which are unused, have handles and are of a thickness of 70 microns (0.07mm) or less. But in Wales there’s greater clarity in that it applies to all businesses and all bags. The Environmental Audit Committee have called the English government’s plans “unnecessarily complicated” and “a mess”.

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Words: Zaki Dogliani and Agnes Davis