Plastic Bag Charge Confusion

Surfers Against Sewage recently celebrated the single-use bag charge being included in the Queen’s Speech.  However, the Government has shown its contempt for cross-party expertise and specialists across the retail, recycling, manufacturing and third sectors by categorically rejecting the Environmental Audit Committee’s recommendations on how to develop a successful carrier bag charging scheme that would deliver the best results in England.

Wales has had a bag charge since 2011, so there’s a proven template of how to run it. Crucially it is a universal system with a charge for all bags, in all shops, with support provided for retailers in getting the message out to shoppers. Consumers and retailers get used to it, bag usage drops, litter levels drop and retailers enjoy the benefits of reduced costs.

However, in England, the Government has confirmed small retailers will be exempted, citing the reluctance of some small to medium enterprises (SME) representative bodies to support the charge. This ignores the fact that the main body who originally opposed the charge – the Federation of Small Businesses – has subsequently revised its position and would support the charge, as long as the regulatory burden was minimal.

The Government has also exempted paper bags, on the basis that they are a minimal part of the litter problem. This ignores the evidence that major fast food retailers use paper bags for their products and this packaging is one of the most commonly littered items. Fast food litter increased 3% in 2012-13, being found in 32% of littered sites.

The current plans also ignore the scientific evidence that paper bags, across their lifecycle, have a negative environmental impact due to the carbon impact of their distribution.

By exempting paper bags, retailers can switch to this material to avoid the charge, thus undermining the scheme even further. To suggest, as the Government has, that even a 50% increase in paper bag usage would have a “negligible environmental impact” highlights a fundamental lack of understanding of impact reduction policy-making.

The result is an inconsistent, confusing scheme that will deliver sub-standard results.

In addition, we are still waiting for the Government to respond to its own consultation, which it was due to do in January of this year. As summer arrives, we have had no explanation for the delay, meanwhile the terms of the charge have been set.