Should we pay for plastic bags?

Plastic bag Image copyright Getty Images

Plans to introduce a charge for receiving plastic shopping bags are to be introduced in England in 2015 at the earliest - some time after the rest of the UK. But critics say the law will be much weaker than those in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland.

What's the point?

More than eight billion disposable carrier bags are used in England every year. Many are thrown away after just one use, filling up landfill sites, or littering rivers, hedgerows and town centres. They can be a threat to wildlife, especially marine life. Globally, they contribute to the vast floating plastic "islands" in the oceans. Ministers and activists want people to get in the habit of reusing bags, not discarding them.

What should be done about plastic bags?

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What difference will a charge make?

Figures from Wales and Northern Ireland show their charges have had a dramatic and immediate effect, reducing bag use by 80% or more, since introduction in 2011 and 2013 respectively. The Irish Republic introduced its 15 cent (13p) plastic bag tax back in 2002 - and estimates a 90% drop in single bag use.

What's exempted and why?

Image copyright Getty Images

The government wants the 5p charge to apply only in supermarkets and larger stores, with at least 250 employees, but smaller shops and takeaway outlets to be exempted to reduce the admin and financial cost to small business. The plan would also exempt biodegradable bags, paper bags and reusable "bags for life", which are seen as greener.

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What's wrong with exemptions?

Critics say they confuse the issue, and may give people the impression they do not need to reuse other types of bag. Joan Walley MP, chair of the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC), says they are "unnecessarily complicated". "We should keep it simple, learn from Northern Ireland and Wales, and have a level playing field across England," she adds.

The Association of Convenience Stores, or ACS, ("the voice of local shops") says the scheme is "too complex". It says its members are keen to take part and the proposed charge should apply "to all bag types and all retailers".

Convenience stores back charge

What happens to the money?

It is supposed to go to charity. Big stores will be expected to donate it to environmental charities, but there will be no reporting rules for small shops, who may decide to support local causes instead. Although shops currently bear a small cost in providing bags free, the ACS says research suggests shops in Wales have not been covering this cost from the charge, but giving it all to charity.

Are other bags better?

The very thin modern plastic bags used by supermarkets are actually cleaner to produce, in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, than paper bags, heavier plastic "bags for life" and textile bags. Those bags are only more efficient when reused a number of times - more than 100 times in the case of a cotton bag - which is, of course, the idea. Thin plastic bags can be made less wasteful if reused, and then used as a bin liner.

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