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A five pence charge came into effect on single use carrier bags in England on 5 October 2015. The term “single use carrier bag” generally refers to the conventional, lightweight, plastic carrier bags (made from polyethylene) offered to customers in almost all UK supermarkets. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has emphasised that the charge is not a tax and (with the exception of any VAT included in the charge) the money from the charge does not go to the government. The charge in England, which is paid by customers to retailers, follows the introduction of similar levies in other parts of the UK. Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland introduced a 5p levy on single use carrier bags in 2011, 2013 and 2014 respectively. The purpose of each single use carrier bag charge is to reduce the number of bags given out, increase their re-use and reduce litter.

In England, the Government policy Carrier Bags: Why there’s a charge was updated on 19 March 2020 temporarily suspending the charge for home delivery of groceries until 21 September 2020.

The Scottish Government also suspended the charge for grocery delivery and collection of orders placed in advance and for takeaway food from 2 April 2020 until 3 October 2020.

In Wales, the charge for bags used in grocery collections and deliveries was suspended from 9 April 2020 to 31 December 2020.

The charge for bags used for grocery deliveries was suspended in Northern Ireland from 1 April 2020 to 30 September 2020.

The Climate Change Act 2008 and the Climate Change (Scotland) Act 2009 provide the legislative framework for the single use carrier bag charge. The terms for each single use carrier bag charge are slightly different in each part of the UK. Notable differences between the charges include:

  • In England, small and medium-sized enterprises (retailers employing less than 250 staff) are exempt from applying the charge.
  • In Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, biodegradable and most types of paper bags are included and so are charged for. In England, paper bags are exempt.
  • In England, Wales and Scotland, retailers are free to use the proceeds of the charge as they wish (although they are strongly encouraged to donate them to “good causes”). In Northern Ireland, regulations require that the proceeds go to the Government.

Effectiveness of the charge

The Welsh Government estimated that single use carrier bag use between 2011 and 2014 declined by 71%; Zero Waste Scotland estimated that the 7 major grocery retailers in Scotland used about 650 million fewer single use carrier bags in the first year of the charge in Scotland; and Northern Ireland reported a 71.8% reduction in plastic bag use in its first year. A summary of the data on single-use plastic carrier bags in England has been published for every year since the charge was introduced. A PQ answer in October 2018 stated that:

  • The single use carrier bag charge introduced in 2015 has seen plastic bag sales in major supermarkets drop by 86%[1]

On 19 January 2015 changes were introduced to the charge in Northern Ireland. The levy there now applies to all new carrier bags with a retail price below 20p, regardless of what they are made from. This change was to ensure that cheap reusable bags are also charged for, so that customers are encouraged to reuse reusable bags to their full potential. The statistics for 2015/16 in Northern Ireland reported a year on year increase in carrier bag usage of 10.6%, but pointed to the change in regulation to explain this.

Proposals for change

On 27 December 2018, the former UK Government launched a consultation on the charge in England, proposing extending the charge to all retailers and increasing the charge to 10p per bag. The outcome of the consultation, published on 31 August 2020, confirmed that from 1 April 2021 the charge would be extended to all businesses of any size supplying goods and increased from 5p to 10p per bag.

In a consultation on developing Scotland’s circular economy launched in November 2019, the Scottish Government proposed increasing the minimum charge for single-use carrier bags from 5p to 10p.

In a consultation on its Circular Economy Strategy launched in November 2019, the Welsh Government undertook to review the carrier bag charge to consider further action.

The Environment Bill 2019-20 contains provision to allow the Secretary of State in England and the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs in Northern Ireland, to make regulations to require sellers of single use carrier bags to register with an administrator. This is to allow for more accurate record keeping about the charge.

This note sets out the arrangements surrounding the single use carrier bag charge in each part of the UK.

[1]    PQ 180096, answered 22 October 2018

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