Keep the carrier bag charge simple - MPs tell Government

06 February 2014

Plans to charge 5p for carrier bags to cut waste, litter and carbon emissions must be kept simple for the scheme to work, the Environmental Audit Committee has warned

Chair's comments:

Chair of the Committee, Joan Walley MP, said:

 “Ministers have managed to make a complete mess of their planned carrier bags charge by making it unnecessarily complicated.”

“Carrier bags litter our streets and harm wildlife, and the Government is right to want to reduce their use. But Defra seems to have made decisions about the design of this scheme that were based more on wishful thinking than hard evidence.”

Exemptions for small retailers and paper and biodegradable bags make it confusing for consumers, potentially harmful for the recycling industry, and less effective than the Welsh scheme, where bag use has been reduced by over 75% with a straightforward 5p charge on all disposable carrier bags.

Joan Walley MP added:

“Biodegradable bags are not as green as they first sound. We heard that they can do as much harm to wildlife as normal plastic bags and could cause big problems for the UK recycling industry, which would have trouble separating and processing the different material.”

Small retailers

Many of the trade bodies representing small retailers actually oppose the proposed exemption for retailers with less than 250 employees. The National Federation of Retail Newsagents, Association of Convenience Stores and British Retail Consortium all criticized the exemption in evidence to the inquiry because it would distort competition and cause confusion for businesses and consumers. All three bodies said that their members would like to participate. The report concludes that small retailers should be included in the scheme, but that those with fewer than 10 employees should have reduced reporting requirements, as in Wales.

Paper bags 

The report points out that paper bags can have a greater emissions impact than plastic bags. Exempting paper bags from the charge would weaken the message to re-use bags and risks reducing the environmental benefits and reduction in bag use. The Government should include paper bags in the charge, according to the MPs.

Biodegradable bags

Recyclers were concerned that increasing the use of biodegradable plastics would threaten the viability of the UK recycling industry by contaminating waste streams and recycled products. Concerns were also raised during the inquiry that bio-degradable bags would still cause litter and harm wildlife because of the time it takes discarded bags to decay. The Committee is calling on Defra to drop the exemption.

It is important that the Government gets the proposals for the carrier bag charge right, as it is one of the simplest and most effective ways for reducing unnecessary resource use and get people thinking about the environmental impact of their actions. The Government should follow the approach of the 5p charge successfully introduced in Wales in 2011 covering all types of carrier bag.

Joan Walley MP concluded:

 “Experience from Ireland and Wales shows these schemes are popular and can make a real difference. Before the Government reaches the check-out with this policy, it needs to drop the exemptions and keep it simple to help shoppers do the right thing. This needn’t be difficult– simple schemes in Wales and Ireland have dramatically reduced bag use, and had positive environmental impact. It’s not too late to start listening and to re-think these flawed plans.”

Background information

Over 8 billion disposable carrier bags are used in England each year. This is equivalent to over 130 bags per person a year. In contrast, people in Wales now use just 22 a year, following the introduction of a 5p charge.

There is evidence that charging for carrier bags leads to fewer bags being discarded as litter. In Ireland, the proportion of plastic-bag litter dropped from 5% prior to the plastic bag charge to 0.2% after, with people reporting a noticeable positive impact on the environment.

Research shows that a majority in England (81%) is willing to pay a 5p charge for carrier bags if the money goes to charity.

Government expects the charge to raise around £70 million for charity, which shops will donate directly under the plans. The Committee is calling for the £19 million that will be raised as VAT from the charge to also go to environmental good causes.

Further information

Image: iStockphoto

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