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Plastic bag? That will be 5p please 21 April 2015

When I order a delivery from my local Waitrose, attracted by no delivery charge if I spend £60 or more, the food and other items are delivered in carrier bags that are themselves contained in green crates.  The driver wheels the crates up to my house on a trolley, hands over the carrier bags and takes away the crates.  I am left with a load of unwanted carrier bags.  The driver will take them back but they are recycled, not re-used.  What a waste of resources.

“What happens in Wales?” I asked the driver once.  He told me that there is an option for customers in Wales to opt out of receiving the bags – because (as both of us knew) in Wales shops have to charge 5p for a non-reusable carrier bag, and it is not sensible to force your customer to buy one – or many, in the case of my Waitrose deliveries.  And now, with relatively little fanfare, the Welsh approach is coming to England.

From 5 October 2015, the Single Use Carrier Bags Charges (England) Order 2015 will require large businesses (those with 250 or more full-time employees) to charge at least 5p for a single-use plastic carrier bag, and to provide reports to the Government annually on the number of bags that have been “bought” by customers.  As in Wales, there are exemptions that cover certain types of goods including uncooked meat and fish and “live aquatic creatures in water” (which presumably means goldfish).  “Bags for life” and sealed bags are not covered by the regulations at all.  Biodegradable bags may be the subject of an exemption in the future.

“What happens if I don’t?” is always the question clients ask.  Enforcement is by local authorities.  They will have various powers to question and inspect.  Penalties of up to £5,000 are possible for not charging for bags, not keeping the necessary records and a host of other misdemeanours.

“What happens to the money?” is a question that customers may ask.  Presumably a single-use plastic carrier bag doesn’t cost the retailer anything like 5p, so there will be a profit.  The Government, rather cheekily, says on its website “Carrier bag charges: retailers’ responsibilities” that “Once you have deducted reasonable costs, it’s expected that you’ll donate all proceeds to good causes.”  For this purpose, it says “reasonable costs” does not include the cost of buying the bags in the first place.  Any business that retains its profits from selling carrier bags rather than giving the money to good causes will no doubt end up on the front pages of the tabloids.

What will consumers think?  The cost is not high, and Marks & Spencer has been charging 5p for plastic bags for years.  Other retailers also do so.  There will be confusion when consumers see some retailers charging for plastic bags (because they have 250 or more employees) and other not doing so.  It seems to me that the organisations that are going to find this most problematical are supermarkets (the Government’s impact assessment says that over 7 billion carrier bags were given out in 2012 by supermarkets alone).  When packing in a supermarket, customers are used to taking as many carrier bags as they want.  One bag costing 5p is immaterial – but ten bags costing 50p is beginning to look expensive (and how many bags do you pay for when you don’t know until you have finished packing how many you are going to need?).  And for deliveries, Waitrose (and presumably others) will need to re-invent their packing and delivery procedures, as I explained at the start of the article.

For more information, have a look on the Government’s website about it: “Carrier bag charges: retailers’ responsibilities” and if you want more detail (much, much more detail) have a look at the Government’s impact assessment, which is an astonishing mixture of analysis and guesswork.

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