Plastic bags: Government response

17 June 2014

Government ignores calls to include all retailers in plastic bag charge scheme, but puts exemption for biodegradable plastic bags on hold.

Exemption for small retailers

The Government has ignored calls to include all retailers in the 5p plastic bag charge, due to come into force in October 2015. This sets the English policy apart from the successful universal schemes introduced in Wales and Ireland and will limit the benefits it brings in terms of reducing litter, waste and harm to wildlife, the Environmental Audit Committee warns.

Exemption for paper bags

The Government has, however, listened to concerns raised by the cross-party Committee about the problems that could be caused for the UK’s recycling industry by the proposed exemption for ‘biodegradable plastic bags’. Ministers have accepted that it will not now be possible to include this exemption when the charge is introduced next year.

Chair of the Committee, Joan Walley MP, said:

“The 5p bag charge is the right solution — it will reduce litter, cut carbon emissions and reduce waste. Despite our Committee’s recommendations, the Government has decided not to apply the charge across the board, but to go ahead with its proposed exemptions. That risks diluting the benefits of the charge. The decision to only include large retailers is particularly short-sighted and ignores calls from all of the main small retailer organisations to be included in the scheme. I am pleased, however, that the Government has conceded that the proposed exemption for biodegradable plastic bags could cause problems for the UK’s recycling industry and will now not be included when the charge is introduced next year.”

Small retailer organisations

The Committee found that this proposed exemption for small retailers was not supported by the Association of Convenience Stores, the National Federation of Retail Newsagents or the British Retail Consortium, yet the Government still maintains that “some SME representative bodies are in favour of being included in the charge while others are opposed”. It does not name which trade bodies are in favour.

Biodegradable plastic bags and risk of recycling contamination

A biodegradable plastic bag exemption was envisaged by the Government when it consulted on the charge last November. However, the Environmental Audit Committee recommended in its report in February that the Government should not proceed with its plan for a biodegradable plastic bag exemption because of the risk of contamination to plastic recycling and the potential confused messages shoppers would get.

In its response to the Committee’s report, the Government says that while it still believes biodegradable plastic bags will be needed in future, it acknowledges that it is “not aware that such a plastic bag currently exists” and it would “represent a challenge to UK industry to produce a genuinely biodegradable plastic bag that meets defined criteria and which can be reliably identified and separated in waste”. The Government conclude that a biodegradable plastic exemption: “will not be included in the legislation until standards for the bags have been finalised … The exemption will not come into effect with the legislation for the 5p charge in October 2015.” Paper bags will, however, still be exempt.

Chair of the Committee, Joan Walley MP, said:

“The Government should think again about an exemption for small businesses. The Government says simply that some trade bodies are opposed. The Government should tell us which trade bodies are against, so that we can see exactly what the evidence says for ourselves.”


In the Queen’s speech, the Government announced its intention to go ahead with the charge, although it would require a regulation to be introduced rather than new legislation.

Ireland introduced a charge in 2002, and Wales introduced a 5p charge in October 2011, leading to significant reductions in use. Subsequently, Northern Ireland introduced a scheme in April 2013, and Scotland will introduce a scheme in October 2014. None of these schemes have an exception for small retailers.

The Government’s proposals for England only apply to plastic bags. Unlike the rest of the UK, it therefore does not apply to paper bags, which are distributed by some High Street stores. It told the Committee that “paper bags make up less than 0.1% of carrier bags distributed in the UK by the 7 major supermarket retailers”, but did not give data on other retailers, such as High Street shops. Therefore, a shopper could be faced with having to pay for a bag in some stores but not in others, depending on which material was used.

Further information

Image: iStockphoto

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