As of the 5th October, English shoppers will be subject to a 5 pence charge per carrier bag when buying at major retailers, but will the new levy realistically have any impact in reducing the amount of waste?
The charge will apply to any retailer that employs 250 or more full-time members of staff; covering a whole range of retail, including supermarkets, fashion stores and DIY chains
According to the waste reduction body 'Wrap', UK consumers of supermarkets used around 8.5 billion free plastic bags last year, which averages out to about 23 million a day.
The levy has already been in place for a number of years in the UK, with Northern Ireland and Scotland adopting a similar policy in 2013 and 2014, after Wales had set the precedent in 2011. Wales and Northern Ireland have both seen a reduction in plastic bag use of around 80% since the charge was introduced, so based on that evidence it seems reasonable to expect similar results in England.
However, differences in the regulations between England and the other adopters allows a number of exceptions which will endanger the success of the scheme. For example, legislation is much tighter in Wales, where is applies to all single use bags, including paper and starch based materials. In England the rules single out single-use plastic bags – also specifying that this only applies to bags of 0.07mm or less. Similarly, in Wales the charge applies to all retailers, whereas in England it's only really applicable to large, chain retailers.
According to a spokesperson from the 'Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs', the decision to apply the rule differently in England was about making a sensible compromise: “It was about getting the balance right, looking at small businesses and start-ups, making sure they got support. And really focusing on where the vast majority of bags are coming from – which is big supermarkets”. Regardless, the government estimates that the move will raise up to £730 million for good causes over the next 10 years.
Unfortunately the levy is not an actual tax, and retailers get to decide what to do with the money they collect, however they must report their actions to the government. The leading stores have already vowed to donate the money to charities, which no doubt provides them an opportunity to exploit the situation for commercial purposes, by demonstrating how charitable they are.
The move seems to be a popular one with most consumers, who are more attuned to environmental issues in recent times. However, a lot more work is needed to regulate packaging in general, before celebrating that we're making positive changes for the sake of the environment.