Charging for single use plastic carrier bags
This was a supporting detail page of the main policy document.
In 2013, supermarkets gave out over 8 billion single-use carrier bags across the UK. That is nearly 130 bags per person. This equates to about 57,000 tonnes of single-use carrier bags in total over the year.
Discarded plastic bags are a very visible form of littering and can cause injury to marine wildlife. The effect of plastic bags on the environment goes beyond littering. They consume resources, including oil, in their creation. Even when disposed of responsibly, plastic bags can last for long periods of time in landfill sites.
We expect that this targeted, proportionate charge will reduce the number of plastic bags used in England, increase their re-use and reduce littering.
We have introduced a 5p charge on single-use plastic carrier bags in England from 5 October 2015. There is already a similar 5p charge on single-use bags in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
The Single Use Carrier Bags Charges (England) Order 2015 was made on 19 March 2015. We have published guidance which explains how retailers should comply with the charging scheme. It deals with the definition of bags subject to the 5p charge, exemptions and what reasonable costs can be deducted from the proceeds
Exemptions for small and medium-sized businesses
We have chosen to exempt small and medium-sized (SME) businesses from the plastic bag charge in England. This will reduce the administrative burden on both start-up and growing businesses at a time when we are supporting new growth in our economy. We must also consider the impact on consumers.
Other exemptions are set out in our guidance to retailers.
We recognise that there will always be a need for some form of single use bag for impulse buys. For these bags our aim is a genuinely biodegradable plastic bag that meets defined criteria and which can also be identified and separated in waste recovery and treatment operations. We are not aware that such a plastic bag currently exists.
We are working with industry and academic experts to review existing standards for biodegradability. We will report to Parliament in October 2015 on whether there are suitable standards that could be applied to biodegradable bags for them to be exempted from the 5p charge. Any exemption for biodegradable bags would be introduced by amending the law.
Improving waste separation
As people use more biodegradable plastic in this country, we’ll need more sophisticated ways to separate plastic waste so that it can be properly recycled. We launched a Small Business Research Initiative with Innovate UK to encourage new ways of developing bags which are more biodegradable. This work is also looking at how we might separate different types of plastic. As part of this, we have paid around £80,000 for four short studies, which have now been completed:
- Aquapak Polymers Limited – alternative bag materials
- Axion Consulting – alternative bag materials
- Aquapak Polymers Limited – detection and separation methods for different plastics in waste streams
- Axion Consulting – detection and separation methods for different plastics in waste streams
Based on the results of these studies we have decided to continue with a further stage of research. This will be looking at a promising film developed by Aquapak Polymers. This research will cost approximately £200,000 and will aim to develop the film into a prototype biodegradable bag. If this is successful, then Defra will spend approximately £180,000 more to develop ways of separating different types of waste.
Since 2006, the retail industry made some important changes to reduce the huge amount of plastic bags that we use in this country, including marketing Bags for Life more clearly. As a result carrier bag distribution fell by 32% between 2006 and 2012.
While this represented significant progress, single-use carrier bag distribution started to creep back up in England between 2010 and 2013 by 18%. During the same period, the introduction of a charge on carrier bags in Wales resulted in a fall in carrier bag usage of 79%.
The proposed plastic bag charge in England is a targeted, proportionate approach to the problem of carrier bag distribution and littering. It will therefore focus on plastic bags and not on paper bags, as paper bags make up less than 0.1% of carrier bags distributed in the UK by the seven major supermarket retailers.
Charging in the UK
In Wales, there has been a minimum charge of 5p on single-use carrier bags since 2011. Their charge includes paper bags and applies to all organisations (including SMEs). The Welsh government has a voluntary agreement with retailers under which the proceeds of the charge are given to good causes. Scotland introduced a minimum charge of 5p on carrier bags in October 2014, which is similar to that in Wales.
In Northern Ireland, there has been a minimum charge of 5p on single-use carrier bags since April 2013. The charge applies to single-use bags made from plastic, paper, plant-based materials or natural starch. A proposed rise to 10p in April 2014 was cancelled, as the charge had been so successful. The proceeds from the charge go to the Northern Ireland Department of the Environment and £1 million has just been allocated to provide funding for communities and organisations to develop local environmental projects.
Ireland introduced a levy of 15 cents (13p) on plastic bags in 2002, rising to 22 cents (18p) in 2007. The proceeds from the levy go to the Irish government and are put into an Environment Fund. It has been estimated that usage of plastic bags in Ireland has fallen by over 90% since the introduction of the levy.
Further information on any of the charges in the devolved nations of the UK is available: