Over 8 billion plastic carrier bags are used each year in England, far more than necessary. The Government should follow the approach of the 5p charge for carrier bags in Wales, which has successfully reduced bag use by over 75%. Reducing bag use has significant environmental benefits in terms of lower carbon emissions, resource use and litter.
The charge scheme that the Government is proposing in England, with additional exemptions for small retailers and paper and biodegradable bags, would be too complex, unnecessarily confusing for shoppers, and less effective than the Welsh scheme. The proposed 5p charge should apply to all bag types and all retailers.
We welcome the proposals that the proceeds from the charge, which the Government expects to raise around £70 million, will go to charity. However, Treasury revenue from the VAT on the charge, equal to almost 1p out of every 5p, should also be spent on new environmental projects and on monitoring the impact of the scheme. It should encourage retailers to publicise prominently in store how money received from the bag charge is used.
There is evidence that charging for carrier bags leads to fewer bags being discarded as litter. The Government should focus on making the scheme simple and coherent with other policies to reinforce other positive environmental behaviours. It should take steps to set a minimum price for 'bags for life' at a level which incentivises their reuse.
The largest and simplest environmental gains from carrier bags are from encouraging shoppers to use fewer bags by re-using them. The options for disposal and recycling of bags are complex, with significant risks around contamination, and must be coherent with the Government's wider approach to reducing and managing waste. The proposed exemption for biodegradable bags risks damaging the UK plastics recycling industry, could undermine the reduction in bag use, and is not necessary. It should not proceed.