What you need to know about the 5p bag charge

What you need to know about the 5p bag charge

They were first developed in the Sixties and quickly became a staple part of our shopping trips. But now the way we use the plastic bag is about to change for good, as large retailers in England will have to charge 5p for single-use plastic bags from today, October 5.

While shoppers in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland have been used to paying for plastic bags for the past few years, this new law means the whole of the UK will now be joining in the war against plastic pollution.

And it’s a whopping big battle to fight. Recent reports showed supermarkets gave out a staggering 8.5 billion single-use plastic bags last year – up 200 million from the previous year – which works out around 132 plastic bags per person every year. And this is all having a devastating impact on our environment and wildlife.

Scientists estimate there’s now about 580,000 pieces of plastic, including carrier bags, floating around every square km of sea, while the Head of Ocean Conservancy has warned that there will soon be as much plastic in our oceans as fish. In fact, it’s thought 90 per cent of seabirds have now swallowed plastic that’s been dumped in the ocean, which can be fatal if it gets stuck in their throat or insides –possibly one of the causes for the number of fish, seabirds and marine mammals worldwide halving since 1970.

So while it’s obvious that the campaign to bring down carrier bag consumption is a worthy and much-needed one, how will it actually work in practice? Well, it’s not quite as clear-cut as you might think. With the government guidelines listing countless exceptions and technicalities to the charge, retailers and shoppers have already expressed befuddlement about how the scheme will be enforced. 

Which shops
will charge?

Only retailers that have 250 or more full-time equivalent staff will have to charge in England, meaning smaller independent shops won’t be obliged to, although they can if they wish.

This is a big change from Wales where all retailers including franchises, charities and public sector organisations have to charge for any bags – whether plastic or paper –  when selling goods. Considering Wales has been a big success story for the plastic bag charge, cutting their use back by nearly 80 per cent since charges started in 2011, it’ll be interesting to see if England matches this kind of success rate with these narrower guidelines.

Scotland brought in a 5p charge for plastic bags in 2014 and has already seen a big reduction, with the total number of bags issued falling by
150 million in just a year.

Are there any exceptions?

There are a number of exemptions from the charge that could result in confusion at the checkout. For example, plastic bags for uncooked meat, loose seeds and bulbs, razors and even your unwrapped take-out from the chippie generally won’t be charged for. But add any items not on the exempt list to your bag and you’ll have to pay.

This means you can fill your bag with loose flowers and a razor blade, but the moment you add a box of cornflakes, you’ll be
charged 5p.

What about bags for online deliveries?

Online supermarket shoppers could also face some puzzlement, as retailers will charge for bags for deliveries unless you select a “bagless” order. But since you don’t tend to know the number of bags you’ll need for a delivery in advance, the supermarkets will charge an average for multi-bag deliveries – even though they’re obliged to make sure at least 5p is charged for each bag.

If you hand your bags back to the driver to be reused you won’t be charged, although you will if they’re handed back to be recycled or go to landfill. How this will all actually work in practice, we’re
keen to see.

What happens to the money from bag sales?

 The government says retailers can choose what to do with the proceeds from bag sales but they are expected – although not legally obliged – to donate the money to good causes.

All large retailers must report to the Department for Environment and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) next year to say what what they’ve done with the money. This information will be made public. If stores required to charge for bags fail to do so, or fail to report to DEFRA where the money has been donated, they will face fines. Ministers hope that over the next 10 years the scheme will raise £730 million for good causes.  

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