Up until now, hearing the words “would you like a bag with that?” from a cashier hasn’t been the kind of question that would require a whole lot of thought. But with today’s introduction of a 5p charge on plastic carrier bags in a bid to decrease the 7.6 billion plastic bags used every year, this might leave shoppers thinking twice about their answer.
The new scheme has been brought in to encourage people to reuse plastic bags and prevent so many littering pavement, clogging up landfills and stop around eight million tonnes of plastic ending up in the ocean. The government expects there to be up to an 80% reduction in the use of plastic bags in supermarkets and 50% in high street stores. It also wants to save £80m in litter clean-up costs and make £730m for good causes such as charities and not-for-profits over the next decade.
However, there are several exceptions to the new law. The charge will only apply to large retailers who have 250 or more full-time employees; smaller shops, airport shops, board trains, planes and ships are exempt, whilst paper bags will also be cost free. Customers can use their own bags but free bags will be provided for customers buying prescription medicine, uncooked meat, poultry or fish and unsealed items such as blades, flowers, seeds and bulbs. Pet lovers buying live fish will also be provided a bag.
England is not the first country in the UK to use the scheme. Wales started charging customers in 2011; it saw a 71% reduction in the number used by consumers and both Northern Ireland and Scotland followed in its footsteps not long after. Meanwhile, six countries have actually banned the use of plastic bags altogether. Bangladesh became the first in 2002; more recently Kenya, South Africa, Rwanda, China and Italy have all also introduced bans.
Rory Stewart, environment minister, said: “Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have seen a dramatic fall in the number of plastic bags taken from supermarkets and we can expect a significant reduction in England, possibly by as much as 80% in supermarkets and 50% on the high street. Simple changes to our shopping routines, such as taking our own bags with us or using more bags for life, can make a huge difference in reducing the amount of plastic in circulation meaning we can all enjoy a cleaner, healthier country.”
And the change in law has attracted support from trade bodies; the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) has actively said it would like to see the rules applied more broadly to all retailers, regardless of size.
John Allan, national chairman of the FSB, said: “Alongside other trade bodies, FSB believes that a universal charge would work better. It would reduce carrier bag use, save money and contribute to good causes – as long as small shops can avoid burdensome reporting duties.”
All in all, it sounds like the change will have a positive effect on both local communities and the planet. Just make sure you remember to take your bags for life out with you.