England embraces the plastic bag tax

England introduced the plastic bag charge on Monday, following the lead of Wales and Scotland…And despite what the press had predicted, the country didn’t grind to a halt, shops weren’t set on fire and we haven’t all had to take up juggling.

In the run-up to the charge being introduced, the papers predicted nothing but chaos in supermarkets, with confused customers and longer queues. But in reality, not only retailers but customers have been preparing for the charge for some time. Most people have a store of carrier bags at home and many people already take their own bags when they go shopping. 

Sure, there are exceptions to the rule which some people have predicted could cause confusion - shops don’t have to charge for unwrapped food, raw meat and fish, prescription medicines, uncovered blades, seeds, bulbs and flowers, or live fish…But staff at all major supermarkets have been briefed on how to implement the charge. Meanwhile, the argument the charge might increase costs for small businesses was quickly overcome by simply making such businesses exempt from the rules. (Although thousands of small stores are still introducing the charge regardless.)

It’s clear to most fair-minded people that the benefits will far outweigh the inconveniences. Anyone who has seen Rebecca Hosking's excellent and a slightly disturbing, 'Message In The Waves' documentary for the BBC will appreciate the impact of what impact plastics are having on our environment. Last year alone, English supermarkets gave out the equivalent of 140 plastic bags per person. This is expected to reduce dramatically, as supermarkets have reported a fall of up to 90% in plastic bag use since similar charges were introduced in Wales and Scotland. 

How have the public reacted?

It’s a change that has been coming for a while and most consumers have taken it in their stride. This is no more evident than on Twitter, where the internet reacted with typical humour…

Twitter user @dawneywawnwy suggested “avoid the plastic bag tax by eating everything at the checkout” whilst the Have I Got News For You team (@haveigotnews) went with the quip “Supermarkets to charge 5p for plastic bags. Waitress to charge 12p for free range, organic ‘sac plastique’. The parody account of Eastender’s Ian Beale, @_IanBeale_, said “If #plasticbags are worth 5p each then I’ve probably got enough for 2 weeks in Dubai under my kitchen sink”. User @MatthiasSchilf went with “Why would I pay 5p each for carrier bags when I can buy a large trolley for a pound?! These people must think we're stupid!#plasticbags”

How have supermarkets responded?

Tesco is donating the money raised from the charge to a number of local projects to improve green spaces in communities across the UK. Projects that will get the green light as a result of the funding will include building new pocket parks, sports facilities, woodland walks and community gardens. Customers who opt for a bagged online order will be charged a flat rate of 40p from October 5th for choosing to receive carrier bags with their shopping or can choose a “bagless’ option. Meanwhile, replaceable bags for life will also be offered.

Sainsbury’s is not providing single-use plastic bags at all, and is instead providing a thicker, re-useable bag made from recycled materials which it will sell for 5p and replace when it wears out. The proceeds of these are exempt from the charge, but Sainsbury’s are still donating the money to charities. For customers that shop online only, Sainsbury’s are introducing a ‘bagless’ option, which gives them the choice to opt out of using bags all together or be charged a flat rate of 40p for single-use plastic carrier bags.

Meanwhile, Asda, Waitrose, Morrisons and Iceland have teamed up to pledge the proceeds from the new charge to fund the construction of a new world-class dementia centre. Building the new centre is a £350 million project and is £100 million short of its target. It is hoped money from the carrier bag charges across all four retailers could meet this shortfall. In addition, Asda is still providing bags for life for 6p which it will replace when it breaks.

The Co-operative has been reducing the number of plastic bags it gives away since 2006 through removing them from the front of checkouts and kiosks and making reusable and recycled bags easier to find. They remind customers to bring their own shopping bags with permanent “don’t forget your bags” signs outside as many stores as possible. Its bags for life are 10p and all profits donated to community projects across the whole of the UK. 

German supermarkets Aldi and Lidl already charge 5p for plastic bags and at the other end of the scale, Marks & Spencer has been charing 5p for bags since 2007. 

Sophie MacIntyre

Friday, 9 October 2015 at 11:44am

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