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5 October 2015

What will the new 5p plastic bag charge mean in the long run?

Carrier bag chaos or sensible solution?

By Barbara Speed

Panic and confusion gripped the nation this morning as it gradually dawned on us: plastic bags aren’t free anymore. The Daily Mail channeled the feelings of Middle England with a typically calm and considered front page:

In the face of this terrifying new policy, here’s your need to know.

Why now?

England is actually the last country in the UK to introduce fees for plastic bags – Wales, Northern Ireland Scotland brought them in in 2011, 2013 and 2014 respectively. This ban was planned as part of a drive to cut waste in supermarkets by 80 per cent, and on the high street by 50 per cent. 

Will it be as confusing as the Mail claims?

Critics of the policy are mainly focussing on its complexity. In the rest of the UK, there’s a blanket 5p policy on bags, but in England, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has put together some exemptions. 

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Basically, you only need to charge a minimum of 5p for bags if:

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> You’re a retailer with at least 250 full-time employees and

> Your bags are plastic, not paper, have handles, are unused, and are 70 microns thick or less and

> The customer isn’t buying fresh vegetables, perscriptions, or open food (like fish and chips) which needs its own bag (there’s a full list of products that get exemptions here).

Got that? Simple, right?

Despite these exemptions, other stores can still use the 5p charge – many corner shops and convenience stores, for example, have said they’re also planning to introduce it. 

Will it help the environment?

Let’s just say that last year, 7.6bn plastic bags were given out in England alone. That’s 140 per person, including babies. When Wales introduced similar charges, its consumption of plastic bags fell by 79 per cent in three years (though in Wales, the restrictions applied to all shops  not just big ones). 

Alongside the reduction in bags, many supermarkets are considering donating part of the 5p charge to environmental charities, which is an added win. 

Will it help the supermarkets?

When Marks and Spencer introduced a 5p charge for its larger plastic bags back in 2008, the journalist James Ball, then working at The Grocer, worked out that the company stood to make around £40m a year (a combined effect of the savings on bags, and the charge). This was despite the fact they were donating 1.83p of each 5p charge to charity. 

Will there be chaos?

The slightly confusing list of exemptions might mean it takes us longer to internalise the fact that we should bring our own bags with us, but it’s probably worth the hassle if we can cut down the huge number of plastic bags we get through every year.