England will be the last UK nation to introduce a 5p charge for single-use plastic carrier bags on October 5.

However, despite the evidence from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland that a simple charge levied consistently works and delivers on its stated purpose - to encourage a behavioural change which results in shoppers using fewer plastic bags - England has decided to go its own way with, what the BRC believes, is an over-complicated scheme that will reduce its impact and cause confusion for shoppers. 

Is a carrier charge necessary?

The answer is ‘yes’ and ‘no’.

If the question is whether it will reduce the number of carrier bags used, the answer is ‘yes’. If the question is whether it will make a significant difference to reducing waste, the answer is ‘no’.

Carriers make up less than 1% of household waste, and whilst this rightly warrants attention, it should be viewed in the context of all the other good work supermarkets are doing around the environment.  This extends well beyond carrier bags to wider and more important green goals including reducing packaging, carbon emissions, food waste and waste to landfill. 

There is a risk that focusing solely on carrier bags could distract from the broader and more challenging issues of radically reducing waste and carbon emissions to meet stretching 2020 goals. That said, if the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs sees reducing the use of carrier bags as a priority, it will have to go beyond voluntary measures in order to achieve reductions on the scale seen in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland.

Experience in those nations demonstrates that the prospect of paying five pence per bag at the till prompts shoppers to think about bringing their own bags when they go shopping.

A missed opportunity

The new charge in England is not consistent with those already operating in the other UK nations, is not logical and leaves retailers with complex messages to communicate to shoppers as to why some shops and some non-reusable bags are exempt from the charge and why these exemptions do not exist elsewhere in the UK.

This is due to an exemption for companies which employ fewer than 250 employees; this will not mean however than all small shops are necessarily exempted from charging. For example, there are independent retailers trading under some symbol groups that do have over 250 employees, meaning some stores operating under a symbol group will have to charge for carrier bags while others will not.

Trade associations, such as the Association of Convenience Stores, representing smaller retailers are of the view that the charge should be applied to all retailers regardless of size, as happens in the rest of the UK.

In addition, the charge in England applies to plastic carrier bags only, while those in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland apply to all single use bags regardless of material type. As a result of these exemptions, retailers on the same high street will not be operating on a level playing field, leading to confusion for the shopper and the impression that the charge is not being applied consistently by all shops, big and small.

The new carrier bag charging scheme for England is a missed opportunity and will not have the universal impact it has had in the other UK nations.

While obligated retailers have done much to prepare and are ready to roll out the scheme on October 5, we hope the Government will in due course re-examine the exemption for smaller businesses, look in detail at the success of similar schemes across the UK and apply the charge to all retailers, no matter their size.

  • Fintan Hastings is external affairs adviser at the BRC and Alice Ellison is environment policy adviser