Plastic bag charges explained

Plastic shopping bags in car
From 5 October large retailers in England will need to start charging for plastic bags as part of government plans to reduce waste.
Get the lowdown on the new rules with our Q&A.

Which stores will charge for bags?

Under the new rules shops with more than 250 full-time employees will need to start charging for plastic bags. The cost of implementing the charges exempts smaller businesses, however the Association of Convenience Stores says it reckons some 16% of corner shops will follow suit. Trade magazine The Grocer has also reported that Londis, Budgens, CostCutter and Spar are all advising their independent stores to start charging for bags.

Are there any exceptions?

Retailers are not required to charge for bags where there is a safety concern. For example unwrapped food, raw fish and meat, flowers, seeds, uncovered blades and prescription medicines. There are also no charges for paper bags or in airport shops, on board airplanes, trains and ships.

How much will the bags cost?

The government has set a minimum charge of 5p per bag, however retailers can charge more if they wish.

What will happen to the money raised?

The charge is not a tax and as such the money won’t go straight into government coffers. However it is hoped that it won’t just bump up supermarket takings either, with the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) recommending that the money raised goes to good causes. Sainsburys, Asda, Tesco, Morrisons and Waitrose have all committed to spending proceeds in this way.

Do the same rules apply if I get my shopping delivered?

Supermarkets still have to charge you for bags used for home deliveries as well as click and collect services. Some supermarkets – including Tesco and Sainsburys – are introducing bag-less home deliveries. If you still require bags, both stores charge a 40p flat fee. Ocado meanwhile will charge 5p per bag but will also refund 5p for every bag you return for recycling. It will also accept bags from other supermarkets.

How can I avoid the charge?

It’s easy to avoid the charge – simply bring bags with you! Keep large ‘bags for life’ in the boot of your car and stash foldaway bags in handbags, rucksacks or pockets so you are always prepared. And, if your bag for life does (somewhat ironically) wear out, supermarkets are usually happy to replace them free of charge.

Why are the rules being introduced?

According to figures from Defra the number of single-use plastic bags that were handed out to shoppers in England rose for the fifth year running in 2014, rising to a whopping 7.6 billion or 140 bags per person. This is in spite of research showing that the average household has 40 plastic bags at home. Plastic bags take longer than other bags to degrade, cause damage to wildlife and contribute to litter.

Will the scheme work?

Defra estimates that the scheme will see take up of single-use carrier bags drop by as much as 80% in supermarkets and 50% on the high street. It also anticipates the scheme will raise up to £730m for good causes and cut litter clear up costs by £60m. The charges already apply in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and in Wales plastic bag consumption dropped by 79% in three years.

Huge sums have also been raised for charity with Asda generating £270,000 in Wales over the last 12 months while Scottish stores raised £156,000 for social and community projects in the first six months after the charge was introduced.

Why is the new charge causing such controversy?

The policy itself is nothing new (England is the last of the home nations to charge for plastic bags, with Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland introducing the charge in 2011, 2013 and 2014, respectively) so you could be forgiven for thinking that the introduction of the rule would be a simple cut and paste job.

However, the exemptions based on the size of the retailer and the type of bag affected (as well as the contents therein) are unique to England, leading some quarters to criticize this move as confusing at best and, at worst, ineffective.

An easy example of potentially confusing policy reads that, “a bag can contain multiple items from this list and not incur a charge. However, if the bag contains other items then you must charge. For example, you wouldn’t charge for a bag containing an unwrapped blade and unwrapped loose seeds, but adding a box of cornflakes means you’d have to charge.”

Additionally, the size of the bag does not matter, so smaller bags you may not have previously registered as being ‘carrier bags’ will also incur a charge.

However, simply ensuring that you follow our above advice on avoiding the charge will help you dodge the confusion and allow you to get through the tills as fast as possible and with the minimum of fuss.

Your Comments

This charge is for single use plastic bags. I have never had such a bag, mine get reused until they break then I replace them. Do I get charged for using a single use bag a second time? That could be interesting, a Tesco bag being charged for in Sainsbury's!

Is it true that this charge is NOT a tax? No longer are retailers giving a bag away, they are selling it to us. I live in Scotland and wrote to The Scottish Government about this and I have a letter from them confirming that the 5p charge includes an element of VAT. Thus in Scotland SOME of the charge (after allowed deductions for retailers' expenses) DOES go to Government coffers.
Needless to say, Governments keep quiet about this, preferring to stress the "good causes" side of things!

As Tesco is now going to charge me for the bag I demand that they pay me 5p for every bag that carries their name and so advertises the shop.
.....just joking guys!