Skip to content

Has the 5p Carrier Bag Charge Been Successful? And What Next?

A year ago this week, the government introduced the 5p carrier bag charge in England. It divided opinion at the time. On one hand, environmentalists claimed that it was good for litter and for wildlife. On the other hand, shoppers bemoaned the need to remember to take carrier bags when shopping. In the middle, industry accepted the measures without complaint although some pointed to the fact that many had switched to biodegradable plastic bags years ago.

5p Carrier Bag Charge One Year On

According to research, 90% of shoppers now take carrier bags with them when shopping (that is 9 in every 10). This 10% could account for those occasions when we all forget but it seems we are largely in the habit of reusing bags. Before the 5p levy came in October 2015, it was reported that some 70% of people took bags shopping. This is an improvement of 20%.

Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland saw similar reductions after their first year. The Scottish scheme came in 2014, Northern Ireland’s in 2013 and Wales in 2011. Each has reported a 90% re-use rate for customers. Ideally, the government and environmentalists would like to reduce this further. Previous attempts to reduce carrier bag use have been unsuccessful. Policies by Lidl and Aldi refusing to supply free bags encouraged bag re-use for those supermarkets, but others were reluctant to follow suit.

Carrier BagsAre Plastic Bottles Next?

Now that the plastic bag scheme is in full swing, there have been suggestions of introducing other schemes for similar waste material. At present, we recycle a large number of materials, including plastic bottles. Many people in their 40s and upwards remember returning glass bottles to corner shops and receiving compensation for it. This idea is now being touted again for plastic bottles.

We buy millions of plastic bottles every year and not enough are recycled. Plus, there is great disparity between the recycling services that councils offer. Some have only just introduced plastic bottle recycling, others still do not offer the full range of services. Involving industry in rewarding consumers for returning plastic bottles will take the pressure off councils and reduce the amount of litter in landfill and on our streets.

The same research into plastic bags showed increased support for a plastic bottle compensation scheme from 33% to 39% in England and from 44% to 50% in Wales. Support in Scotland was lower but still registered an increase from 25% to 34%.

The Coffee Cup Problem

For others, a more pressing problem is takeaway coffee cups. The mistaken belief is that these are environmentally friendly as they are card and paper based. However, a chemical agent is used to make the paper waterproof. This agent is not environmentally friendly and many end up in the ocean, breaking down into plastic pieces that are harmful to ocean life.

This could be the next issue on the agenda. The Liberal Democrats are currently campaigning for a charge on these disposable cups. If successful, it may encourage people to purchase reusable takeaway coffee cups that some coffee chains already supply, or simply to take their own mugs into coffee shops.

The Ongoing Problem of Excessive Packaging

It’s been around 10 years since the media highlighted this problem – fruit and veg unnecessarily in bags, fruit and vegetables peeled and put into plastic containers, biscuits and cakes inside three layers of packaging. The list is endless and industry has been slow to act on this problem.

The same report suggested that consumers are generally happy to pay a green tax to cover excess packaging in the supermarkets. This has grown in line with the carrier bag charge, much to the surprise of the researchers. However, this could be a long way off and the government may look at other issues first in relation to reducing packaging.