Plastic Bag Pennies

Chris-MurphyNow it is firmly in place, CIWM’s deputy chief executive and Fellow of the Institution, Chris Murphy, looks at the introduction of the 5p carrier bag charge in England, the unusual exemptions an the impact it’s had elsewhere in the UK…


By the time you read this England will have caught up with the rest of the UK in terms of environmental regulation and ambition. Perhaps that is a slight exaggeration – and some wishful thinking – but from 5 October a single use carrier bag (SUCB) charge will have been introduced in England, putting it in line with Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, where the charges have been in place for some time; four years in the case of Wales.

The Government claim this is part of a policy to reduce litter and in Wales, where the charge has been in place since 2011, and it continues to promote it as a step in the fight against littering which reduces the environmental quality of the places where we live and work and blights the landscape.

They are also a waste of resources and are a symbol of our throw-away society. Behavioural change and wasted resources are powerful arguments and, in this context, hold water; the littering argument is less compelling. Reports from other government departments and agencies show that plastic bags, while very visible, are not a significant proportion of litter.

The exemptions from the scheme are numerous in all countries and include obvious exclusions such as unwrapped food, uncooked meat, prescriptions and goldfish (live aquatic creatures). What is not apparent is why shoe repairers are excluded in Northern Ireland and who is selling unwrapped razor blades or axes for them to be singled out as an exclusion?

While England has been dragging its feet we are already seeing the huge difference the charge has made to reducing the use of SUCBs elsewhere in the UK. In Northern Ireland they have reduced by a third, to 80m in the period 2010/11 to 2013/14. A post-implementation review in Wales shows similar positive results, including a decline in SUCB use of over 70 percent from October 2011-14 and, importantly, consumer support is almost at three-quarters.

Different In England

There are some slight changes between the charge in England and that elsewhere. There is a 250 employee threshold in England, meaning that only the biggest of the retailers will be levying a charge. Some see this as a lost opportunity, but the Government is adamant that it does not want to burden particularly small business with cost and administrative overheads.

Nevertheless, there is a feeling that nearly 20 percent of small retailers will voluntarily apply the charge. In all the systems there is a requirement to record and submit information regarding the number of bags sold, the price for each bag, income generated, overheads and net income. The Regulations do not impose any obligation on how the net proceeds of the charge should be used, leaving that decision with the individual businesses.

Generally the Regulations encourage businesses to donate the net proceeds of the charge to good causes. It seems that only in England will there be a duty to publish information on donations, rather than leaving it as a voluntary agreement. The cynic may ask how those smaller retailers not obligated in the scheme in England will be monitored to ensure they are passing the net proceeds to good causes?

Wales commissioned a report on attitude change and behavioural spillover as a consequence of the SUCB charge and they found there were more positive responses to environmental and behavioural change policies after implementation. The charge has proven to be popular and effective in Wales and, while there is no direct evidence of behavioural spillover (ie changed behaviour in other environmental situations), it has generated a positive feeling and, when asked, respondents in Wales felt they were a more waste conscious person because of it.

Clearly the benefits of this charge go far beyond reducing litter, improving our environment and generating income for good causes. Perhaps 5p is a small price to pay if it makes us all more waste conscious.


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