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Plastic Bags - The single use carrier bag charge

Published Friday, March 1, 2019

This Commons Library briefing paper provides information on the single use carrier bag charge in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, examines the legal basis for the charge, the exemptions and what will be done with the proceeds of the charge. It also examines the impact of the charges to date.

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What is the single use carrier bag charge?

A levy or charge on single use carrier bags paid by customers to retailers.

"Single use carrier bags" generally refers to the conventional, lightweight, plastic carrier bags offered to customers in most UK supermarkets.

A 5p charge came into effect on single use carrier bags in England on 5 October 2015. This means that customers in England will pay large retailers 5 pence for new bags made of lightweight plastic material, with handles, unless the bag is exluded.

The charge in England follows the introduction of similar levies in other parts of the UK. Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland introduced a 5p levy on single use carrier bags in 2011, 2013 and 2014 respectively.

Why has the charge been introduced?

The purpose of the single use carrier bag charge is to reduce the number of bags given out, increase their re-use and reduce litter.

Many plastic bags end up as litter - on streets, beaches and in the countryside and parks. Plastic bags can be particularly damaging for marine environments.  The production and disposal of plastic bags can also have a negative impact on the environment, through the oil used in their creation and the tonnes of plastic which end up in landfill.

What is the legislative basis for the charge?

The Climate Change Act 2008 and the Climate Change (Scotland) Act 2009 provide the legal powers to enable UK national authorities to introduce secondary legislation making provisions about charges for single use carrier bags.

What are the terms of the charge across the UK?

The terms for each single use carrier bag charge are slightly different in each part of the UK. Notable differences between the charges include:

  • In England, small and medium-sized enterprises (retailers employing less than 250 full time staff) are exempt from applying the charge.
  • In Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, most types of paper bags are included and so are charged for. In England, paper bags are exempt. A full list of the exemptions from the charge in England is available in Government guidance for retailers.
  • In England, Wales and Scotland, retailers are free to use the proceeds of the charge as they wish (although they are strongly encouraged to donate them to “good causes”). In Northern Ireland, regulations require that the proceeds go to the Government.

On 19 January 2015, changes were introduced to the charge in Northern Ireland. The levy there now applies to all new carrier bags with a retail price below 20p, regardless of what they are made from. This change was to ensure that cheap reusable bags are also charged for, so that customers are encouraged to reuse reusable bags to their full potential. Previously, Northern Ireland had planned to raise the charge to 10p in April 2014. According to Defra, this was abandoned because the initial 5p charge had proved so succesful.

Consultation on changes to the scheme in England

On 27 December 2018, the Government launched a consultation on the charge in England, proposing extending the charge to all retailers and increasing the charge to 10p per bag. The consultation closed on 22 February 2019. The proposals are summarised: 

  • extending the charge to include all retailers (with no reporting requirements for small and medium businesses)
  • increasing the charge to 10p
  • requiring producers of single use carrier bags to report how much they sell
  • removing the exemption at security restricted areas in airports[1]

[1] Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Single use carrier bags: extending and increasing the charge, 27 December 2018

Biodegradable bags

Biodegradable bags are not exempt anywhere in the UK. However, in England the Government initially included an exemption for biodegradable bags and has included a requirement in the legislation that the Secretary of State carries out a review and reports to Parliament by 5 October 2015 on whether there is an appropriate industry standard for a biodegradable bag that could be exempt and how this would be implemented.

The Government review of standards for biodegradable plastic carrier bags was published on 17 December 2015. It found that there were a number of standards for plastic bag biodegradability and the Government would need to conduct further work before any of these could be used to exempt biodegradable bags.

What is the impact of the charge?

The Welsh Government estimated that single use carrier bag use between 2011 and 2014 declined by 71%; Zero Waste Scotland estimated that the 7 major grocery retailers in Scotland used about 650 million fewer single use carrier bags in the first year of the charge in Scotland; and Northern Ireland reported a 71.8% reduction in plastic bag use in its first year. Year 5 of the Northern Ireland levy (2017/18) saw a reduction in bag numbers of 67.1% compared to the 2012 baseline of 300 million. 

A PQ answer in October 2018 stated that

  • The single use carrier bag charge introduced in 2015 has seen plastic bag sales in major supermarkets drop by 86%[1]

[1]     PQ 180096, answered 22 October 2018


Commons Briefing papers CBP-7241

Authors: Sara Priestley; Nikki Sutherland

Topics: Companies, Consumers, Environmental protection, Waste management

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