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Pack your bags: England joins other UK nations in ending free plastic bags with caveats

England has become the final part of the UK to introduce a charge for plastic carrier bags in a bid to slash the 7.6 billion handed out annually. However, several caveats and exemptions may stifle the scheme’s success compared to other parts of the UK.

Although some retailers (such as M&S and the German discounters Aldi and Lidl) have already introduced plastic bag charges, the government has moved to employ a strategy used in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland which has reduced consumption of plastic bags dramatically. The 7.6 billion annual bags are the equivalent of 140 per person and amounting to 61,000 tonnes in total. In Scotland it saw plastic bag use fall 80% between the charge’s introduction in October 2014 and April 2015, with similar reductions in Northern Ireland and Wales. Retailers with over 250 employees will be compelled to introduce the carrier bag charges across the economy, not exclusively limited to food retailers.

However, there is an extensive range of exemptions including; uncooked meat, poultry or fish, unwrapped food, prescription medicine, uncovered blades, horticultural products such as flowers, bulbs, and seeds, and live fish. However, if a non-exempt item is also purchased the charge is brought into effect. It also differs from the Welsh scheme in it exempts paper bags, and also charging smaller shops.

With online delivery also growing in the UK, the legislation also covers this; food deliveries from Asda, Sainsbury’s, Waitrose and Tesco will give you the option of a bag free delivery, or a flat rate of 40p. Morrisons and Ocado are charging 5p for each bag used, but will pay 5p for every bag returned.

The money raised by the charges is expected to be donated to worthwhile causes, with accountability measures in place so it has to be reported to the government. For example, M&S has charged 5p for bags since 2007, giving the profits to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the Marine Conservation Society, as well as education projects in primary schools to promote awareness about marine life.

The charge has been welcomed by environmentalists aiming to reduce consumption and landfill waste, as the bags are non-biodegradable. It is also part of wider global trend, with developing countries such as Bangladesh and Rwanda banning the plastic bag altogether. A poll for the Break the Bag Habit (a coalition of litter charities) found 62% of shoppers in England – six percentage points higher than in 2012 – thought it was “reasonable” to charge 5p for carrier bags, although there were inevitably be short term confusion regarding the bag’s introduction; one of the UK’s largest circulating papers the Daily Mail claims that “PLASTIC BAGS CHAOS LOOMS”.

In financial terms, the Treasury sees it expected to raise GBP19m (approximately $31.3m) annually from value added tax (VAT) on the bags. It is expected to save the government and local councils £60m (approximately $98.8m) in litter clean-up costs as well as generate £730m (approximately $1.2bn) for charities over the next decade.

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