In April 2021, the new charge for single use carrier bags in English shops will double to 10p and it will apply in all shops regardless of size.
Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland all have their own versions of the scheme. This change is for retailers in England.
Why is the government increasing the price of plastic bags?
The original 5p charge was introduced in England in 2015. It applied to single use plastic bags in shops with over 250 employees. The scheme is administered by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) under the leadership of the Environment Secretary, George Eustice. He defined the UK as “a world-leader in this global effort” and concluded that the current scheme is a “tremendous success”.
Let’s have a look at the figures.
In 2014, the seven largest supermarkets gave away 7.6 billion single use plastic bags. That’s 140 per person in England. In one year.
In 2017-18, they sold only 1.04 billion. That’s a much less alarming 19 per head of the English population.
With an 95% reduction in the number of disposable plastic bags in sold by major supermarkets, the 5p bag tax can be considered a success. Hopefully, a doubling of the charge will reduce the number even more and encourage people to use ‘bags for life’, or fabric bags, during their shopping trips.
Widening the charge to included smaller retailers should also see a further curtailment of our plastic bag usage. Estimations say that 3.6 billion single use plastic bags are given out by smaller shops every year. According to the Association of Convenience stores, only 50% charge for their bags at the moment.
Is it really a tax?
This mandatory charge is imposed by the government, which it makes it feel like income tax, corporation tax, VAT and all the other tax regulations. But HMRC doesn’t actually collect the money. It is suggested that money made from the sale of plastic bags is donated to charity, which each business can choose for themselves. But this is an expectation and not an enforceable law. Businesses can keep the money without breaking the law. In this respect, it is not another tax.
In 2017-18, DEFRA figures say that £51 million worth of donations were made by the biggest seven supermarkets.
Is this change enough to stem the tide of plastic in our oceans and countryside?
This is not a standalone policy to fix our plastic waste problem. Mr Eustice mentioned the ban on plastic drink stirrers, straws and cotton buds as other elements to the government’s plan.
Greenpeace political campaigner, Sam Chetan-Welsh, said: “By raising the price of plastic bags again, the government is taking a small step in the right direction, but by now they should be taking great strides. Reinstating the previous price of carrier bags but not taking action on bags for life is only looking at one part of the problem.”
“The government should be setting legally binding targets now for retailers to reduce single-use plastics by 50% by 2025. And it should be working to make sure the big-brand plastic producers take responsibility for disposing of their waste. If they’re increasing costs for shoppers, ministers really have no excuse not to increase the costs for the companies that are responsible for the escalating volumes of single-use plastic packaging in the first place.”
Morrisons is trialling its paper bag alternative, with the aim of getting rid of all plastic bags from their stores. This include their ‘bags for life’ and could save 3,520 tonnes of plastic being made into 90million bags for its 494 shops. Waitrose have also announced a paper bag trail, with the same intention to go entirely plastic bag free.
The Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) take this a step further into all single use items. Its deputy chief executive, Tom Fyans, said: “Government should bring in charges on all single-use, throwaway items – from takeaway cups to wooden forks. Incentivising re-use systems and finally committing to an all-in Deposit Return Scheme for drinks containers are the only ways the government can achieve a litter-free countryside and win the war on waste.”
It’s another step in the right direction, but we’ve still a long way to go to reverse the damage plastic pollution has had on our planet.