The Republic of Ireland was the first to charge for single-use carrier bags, with the charge introduced in 2002. Wales began to charge in 2011, Northern Ireland in 2013 and Scotland in 2014, with the 5p charge finally being introduced to England in 2015. There is no doubt at all that the bag charge has cut down on the use of carrier bags, we’re all getting better at remembering to take our reusable bags with us to the shops, and fewer carrier bags are going into landfill. The rules around which bags must be charged for and which can be given away free seem to be a bit confusing, so here are some basic facts, which will hopefully make things a little clearer.
Let’s define a single-use bag – it needs to be new and unused, made of plastic which is no more than 70 microns thick, have handles and not have a sealed opening. Even bags that are used to pack grocery deliveries need to carry the charge. It’s an interesting point that if you ask for your groceries to be delivered without bags, and the store decides to pack certain items such as cleaning materials in a single-use bag, provided they tie the top or seal it in some way, you don’t have to pay for it.
Not all stores need to charge
You may be surprised to learn that not all stores are actually obliged to charge for single-use bags. Any company employing more than 250 people (full-time equivalent employees) is obliged by law to levy the 5p charge, so that’s all the supermarkets and most chain stores. Fewer than 250 people and the charge is voluntary, so small local shops can choose to give the bags away free if they wish to. In fact, most of them choose to charge the 5p.
Where does the money go?
What happens to all those five pences? As small shops don’t need to keep any records of bag sales, it’s up to them what they do with the money (we’d like to think it goes to good causes). The larger stores on the other hand are expected to give the proceeds (minus certain costs) to a defined good cause, preferably something to do with the environment. Their records are scrutinised, and there is a set of quite hefty fines if they don’t comply with the law.
For example, if a business does not apply the bag charge correctly, they can incur a fine of between £200 and £5,000. Not keeping or supplying records has fines of £100 to £5,000, and giving false information, failing to assist or obstructing the local authority carries a whopping £20,000 maximum fine. No wonder most businesses comply.
A little anomaly
There are a few little anomalies in the system. For example, bags for raw meat and fish, unwrapped goods, loose seeds, flowers and unwrapped blades are exempt from the charge. However, add a packaged item to the same shopping spree, and you have to pay the charge. This leads to a certain amount of confusion and consternation at checkouts all across the UK, so good luck with your shopping!