Is the 5p per single use carrier bag a rubbish idea?

Despite the introduction of Bags for Life in 2006 the major supermarkets in England gave out over 8 billion single use carrier bags (SUCBs) in 2013. That equates to over 130 bags per person a year and is approximately 57,000 tonnes of SUCBs in total per year.

Discarded SUCBs are not only a visible form of pollution, but can cause harm to wildlife. SUCBs consume resources, such as oil, in their formation. Even when disposed of responsibly, SUCBs can last for long periods of time in landfill sites.

In order to protect the environment legislation has now been introduced in England. Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have already implemented the charge on SUCBs – with Wales and Scotland seeing a dramatic decline in their usage.

The Single Use Carrier Bags Charges (England) Order 2015 sets out a minimum 5p charge for every SUCB. The charge must be imposed from 5 October 2015 where goods are sold, either for the purpose of enabling the goods to be taken away; or for the purpose of enabling the goods to be delivered to persons in England, by suppliers with more than 250 full-time equivalent employees. This allowance for smaller businesses is to reduce the administrative burden on them.

For the purposes of the legislation an SUCB qualifies if it has an opening and isn’t sealed. The 5p charge must be imposed if the bag is previously unused, plastic, has handles and is less than 70 microns thick.

The purpose of the new 5p charge is to discourage the use of SUCBs to help protect the environment.

Retailers will be fined if they do not charge at least 5p for SUCBs and keep or supply the appropriate records. They will also be fined if they supply misleading information to the regulators concerning compliance.

Enforcement is by local authorities who can impose a variety of penalties. Fixed penalties range from £100 if you do not supply or keep records to £200 for not charging for SUCBs appropriately. The more important deterrent is adverse publicity that may stem from any non-compliance.

Some retailers are concerned that the charges will deter the public from shopping in supermarkets and encourage shopping in smaller outlets (if they have chosen not to apply the charge), that the cost of living for families will increase and although businesses are encouraged to donate the proceeds from the charge to good causes it is not compulsory.

The Taxpayers’ Alliance have labelled the 5p charge a “shopping tax” and estimated it will cost shoppers £1.5bn over a decade. However, it is also estimated that over the next decade the benefits will include nearly £800m to the UK economy, over £700m donated to charity, £60m saved in litter clean-up costs and carbon savings of £13m.

The charge is being introduced at an interesting time in the run-up to Christmas. We suspect it will have a minimal impact and if anything will just encourage people to use their own bags, but we will not know the real impact until companies start to report their Christmas trading results. Can you ‘handle’ the wait?

Sarah Ashworth is a paralegal at Weightmans