Big shops and supermarket chains in England have started charging customers 5p for large carrier bags in England, bringing it in line with other parts of the UK that have had charges for several years.
The charge has been successful elsewhere. The first charge was introduced in Wales, October 2011, followed by Northern Ireland in April 2013 and Scotland in October 2014. Plastic bag use in Scotland is down 80 per cent since the charge was introduced, and figures from Wales and Northern Ireland are simiarly encouraging.
Since, English customers have been shown to use far more carrier bags than those in other parts of the UK, according to July data collected from Asda, Co-operative Group, Marks & Spencer, Morrison’s, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Waitrose.
But the new law in England does not go as far as in other parts of the UK. Small retailers and paper bags are excluded from the charge, unlike Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, where charges are universal.
Environmentalists have called for England to follow suit. “Charging for plastic bags has made a massive difference in the rest of the UK, so it’s about time England caught up," said David Powell, Friends of the Earth’s Senior Resources Campaigner. “The English charge is a good start, but it makes no sense that it only applies to big retailers."
In Scotland, the Government is already considering extending its environmental laws to introduce a "deposit and return" scheme, offering cash rewards for customers that return plastic bottles.
In May Richard Lochhead, Scotland’s environment secretary, said such a scheme could be “the next big thing” in the battle to cut down on plastic waste.
Plastic bag use has decreased 28 per cent since Wrap started gathering data in 2006 thanks to a voluntary agreement in which retailers said they would try to reduce the use of such bags. When that agreement ended in 2009/10, plastic bag use went up 18.5 per cent.
Despite increased usage, the weight of plastics used in single use carrier bags has changed. From 2006 ton 2013, there was a 50 per cent reduction in the amount of virgin polymer used in all carrier bags. Between 2013 and 2014 there was a further 4.5 per cent reduction in virgin polymer used in all carrier bags.
Hannah Maundrell, Editor in Chief at Money.co.uk, says that the carrier bag charge won’t stop us shopping, but it will make us think twice before we grab yet another carrier. “For consumers, the key is to take bags with you whenever you head to the store so you don’t get caught out by the false economy of buying Bags for Life every time you fill your trolley,” Ms Maundrell said.
A poll published by the Break the Bag Habit coalition found that more than half of the respondents were in support of a charge that applied to all retailers. But to maintain this support for the scheme, stores will need to make it clear which charities they are supporting. Otherwise they risk suspicions from shoppers that they are pocketing the money for themselves.
"Supermarkets will benefit most from being transparent about where the money is going; trust in the big chains is poor at best so I expect we’ll see this enforced charity donation being turned into a positive marketing strategy by some," Ms Maundrell said.