Policy paper

2010 to 2015 government policy: waste and recycling

Updated 8 May 2015

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

This is a copy of a document that stated a policy of the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government. The previous URL of this page was https://www.gov.uk/government/policies/reducing-and-managing-waste. Current policies can be found at the GOV.UK policies list.


We generate about 177 million tonnes of waste every year in England alone. This is a poor use of resources and costs businesses and households money. It also causes environmental damage - for example, waste sent to landfill produces methane, a powerful greenhouse gas.

We want to move towards a ‘zero waste economy’. This doesn’t mean that no waste exists - it’s a society where resources are fully valued, financially and environmentally. It means we reduce, reuse and recycle all we can, and throw things away only as a last resort.


Preventing waste

The waste prevention programme for England

To help people and organisations make the most of opportunities to save money by reducing waste, we have published the Waste Prevention Programme for England. The programme sets out to:

  • encourage businesses to contribute to a more sustainable economy by building waste reduction into design, offering alternative business models and delivering new and improved products and services
  • encourage a culture of valuing resources by making it easier for people and businesses to find out how to reduce their waste, to use products for longer, repair broken items, and enable reuse of items by others
  • help businesses recognise and act upon potential savings through better resource efficiency and preventing waste, to realise opportunities for growth
  • support action by central and local government, businesses and civil society to capitalise on these opportunities

Responses to the earlier consultation and call for evidence were used to inform the development of the programme.

In May 2014 the Innovation in Waste Prevention Fund was launched. This scheme is funded by Defra as part of the waste prevention programme. Grants will be awarded to partnerships with creative ideas for preventing waste. The fund will run for two years and grants will be awarded in three phases.

One year on from publishing the Waste Prevention Programme for England, good progress has been made on a range of actions. A newsletter summarising progress on some of the government-led actions has been published.

Preventing food waste

We’re working with businesses in the food and drink sector to prevent food waste, which is a priority under the Review of Waste Policy in England (2011) and the Waste Prevention Programme for England (2013).


We’re making it easier for people and organisations to recycle more.

Improving the quality of recycled material

We’re taking action to:

  • improve the quality of recycling collected from homes and businesses
  • create a stronger market for recycled materials - better quality materials will compete better on the domestic and international markets, and attract higher and more stable prices

The actions we’ve taken include:

Making businesses responsible for what they produce

The UK has laws that require some businesses to make sure that a proportion of what they sell is recovered and recycled. These producer responsibility regulations are based on EC legal requirements. They cover producers of:

We are currently consulting on changes to the producer responsibility regulations. The proposed changes contribute to our commitment to reduce red tape for business. They’ll be of particular interest to businesses that place batteries or packaging on the UK market, and producer responsibility compliance schemes for batteries or packaging.

Developing more voluntary responsibility deals

Government have worked with businesses to develop new voluntary responsibility deals. This means businesses take responsibility for ensuring that a proportion of the goods they produce are recycled, and for reducing waste.

Working with the waste industry

We’re working with the waste industry through the waste management responsibility deal to make sure that:

  • it’s as easy as possible for business, particularly small business, to recycle and get information about how to reduce their waste
  • businesses that perform well are recognised
  • enforcement is based on risk
  • the industry will improve its environmental performance

Improving recycling and waste collection from households

We’re taking a range of actions to improve recycling and waste collection from households.

Helping businesses reduce and manage waste

We’re encouraging councils to sign up to the business waste and recycling services commitment. This means that councils agree to:

  • give clear information about their services
  • work with businesses to reduce waste

We’re reducing the unnecessary burden of regulation and enforcement on legitimate businesses, but targeting those who break the law or harm the environment. This is part of our wider work to reduce the burden of regulation on business. We’re doing this by:

  • carrying out the plans we set out in the regulation and enforcement section of the review of waste policy
  • carrying out research to develop a better evidence base to inform approaches to regulation and policy
  • work as part of the red tape challenge

Single-use plastic bag charging

We will introduce a 5p charge for single use plastic carrier bags, to come into effect in October 2015. The aim is to reduce the use of these bags to help protect the environment. We will encourage businesses to donate the proceeds from the charge to good causes.

Supporting energy from waste where appropriate

We support efficient energy recovery from waste. We’re working to increase the use of anaerobic digestion, which is the process of creating biogas from organic waste.

Getting the right infrastructure in place to deal with waste

We aim to have the right infrastructure in place to deal with waste as efficiently as possible.

To meet this aim, we’re giving local authorities £3.2 billion in grants for waste infrastructure projects. We also provide guidance to help local authorities carry out these projects.

Dealing with waste crime

Waste crime includes fly-tipping, the operation of illegal waste management sites and the illegal export of waste. It can damage the environment and human health, cause pollution, and harm local neighbourhoods.

We’re taking a range of measures to deal with waste crime, including:

An additional £5 million of funding for the enforcement of waste crime was announced in the 2014 Budget. This will increase the planned expenditure on waste crime enforcement in the financial year 2014 to 2015 by nearly 40%. The funding will help the Environment Agency to take on additional enforcement initiatives to tackle waste crime.

Disposing of tyres

The UK produces around 55 million waste tyres a year. We are working to ensure that tyres are disposed of legally.

Regulating landfill sites and landfill waste

Landfill sites are regulated via environmental permits issued to the operator. The design, operation, monitoring, closure and aftercare of landfill sites is subject to the requirements of the EU Landfill Directive and the Council Decision on Waste Acceptance Criteria.

Landfill should be the option of last resort for most waste, especially biodegradable and recyclable waste.

We continue to update our evidence on what goes into landfill and how we can reduce it cost effectively. Our latest research reports include studies into:

We will use the updated information on commercial and industrial waste and biodegradable municipal waste in future analysis and reporting.

We consulted on restricting wood waste to landfill. After carefully considering the written responses, we don’t believe that the time is right to introduce a restriction on wood waste to landfill.

We have committed to reviewing landfill restrictions, including for textiles and food waste. However a good understanding of the data and waste streams is vital to making decisions. We are gathering evidence to consider if landfill restrictions are a cost effective way of managing this type of waste.

Controlling hazardous waste

Hazardous waste is any type of waste that can harm the environment or human health, either immediately or over time. It must be strictly controlled. We’re working with the Environment Agency and industry to reduce the amount and level of hazard of wastes produced.

Recycling ships

Ship recycling is a global issue. Our policy on the environmentally sound management of ships is set out in the UK ship recycling strategy.


Our policy is informed by the ‘waste hierarchy’: 5 steps for dealing with waste, ranked according to their environmental impact. These are set out in Article 4 of the revised EU Waste Framework Directive (Directive 2008/98/EC).

Waste prevention, which is the best option for the environment, is the highest priority, followed by preparing for re-use, recycling, other recovery and disposal.

The review of waste policy in England (2011) set out 13 commitments that will set us on the path towards a zero waste economy. It prioritises efforts to manage waste in line with the waste hierarchy and reduce the carbon impact of waste. We published a progress report on this work in 2012.

Defra’s priorities for waste management activities for 2014 to 2015 were set out in a letter to sustainable resource management stakeholders on 6 November 2013.

Bills and legislation

See our guide to the legislation relating to waste.

Who we’re working with

The Environment Agency has a range of responsibilities, including regulating waste management facilities, monitoring and enforcement issues, and licensing and monitoring waste movement (including exports).

Local authorities are responsible for household and business waste collection services, waste disposal, enforcing waste legislation, dealing with fly-tipping, and encouraging good waste management (eg recycling) in their areas.

Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) is funded by government to deliver our resource efficiency policies by working with businesses, local authorities, communities and households.

The European Commission is currently reviewing its waste legislation to ensure that it is working efficiently. It is starting to develop its future policies on areas like recycling targets and waste prevention. The Commission held a consultation into this from June until September 2013. The UK government issued a formal response to this consultation in September 2013.

Appendix 1: waste research and evidence

This was a supporting detail page of the main policy document.

Defra’s approach to waste evidence is set out in the Waste and Resources Evidence Plan. This describes our current research and other evidence gathering, and our future needs. It includes economics, statistics, natural scientific information, social research, operational research, engineering, analysis, advice, monitoring and surveillance.

Our evidence work is closely linked with other Defra policy areas, such as Sustainable Economy and Food Policy. We also coordinate our evidence gathering with other key providers through the Waste, Resource Efficiency and Sustainable Consumption Evidence (WReSCE) programme to support policy, regulatory and delivery objectives.


Communications are a crucial element of the evidence programme. Reports from evidence projects are published using the usual channels of the WReSCE programme partners:

For more information on waste evidence and research please contact wasteresearch@defra.gsi.gov.uk

Appendix 2: recycling and waste collection from households

This was a supporting detail page of the main policy document.

Waste collection

We’re working with local councils to:

  • increase the frequency and quality of rubbish collections
  • make it easier to recycle

Through the Weekly Collection Support Scheme, we’re offering funding to councils to encourage them to find ways to improve:

  • weekly collections
  • environmental benefits
  • use of innovative ideas or technology that help residents to recycle more

Removing centrally imposed recycling targets

We’ve removed centrally imposed recycling targets. This will allow councils to act on their own local priorities, while also improving recycling rates.

Rewarding good waste management

We are encouraging councils to reward people who reduce, recycle or re-use their waste.

We made up to £1million of funding available in 2012/13 to local authorities and community organisations under the Household Reward and Recognition Scheme.

Stopping unfair penalties

We’re changing the law to stop householders facing criminal convictions for the way they put out their waste for collection. As an interim measure, we have reduced the maximum level of fines to a fairer level.

The next step will be to abolish the criminal offence. We also plan to put in place a ‘harm to local amenity test’ to ensure that only those whose actions cause a nuisance for their neighbours are penalised. We intend to use the Cabinet Office Deregulation Bill to introduce this fairer system.

Appendix 3: UK ship recycling strategy

This was a supporting detail page of the main policy document.

The UK Ship Recycling Strategy sets out:

  • our policy for recycling government-owned vessels
  • relevant waste controls
  • recommendations for owners and operators of UK-registered vessels

It also informs the UK position on international work.

Alongside the strategy, we published guidance for ship owners and ship recyclers on the regulations for ship recycling in the UK.

The Hong Kong International Convention for the Safe and Environmentally Sound Recycling of Ships

The Hong Kong Convention was adopted at an International Maritime Organization (IMO) diplomatic conference in 2009.

The Hong Kong Convention aims to:

  • make sure that end-of-life ships do not pose any unnecessary risks to human health, safety and the environment
  • deal with all issues around ship recycling in design, construction, operation and recycling

It will come into force once ratified (or signed without reservation as to ratification) by a sufficient number of countries. The IMO is developing guidance to support the convention.

EU strategy for better ship dismantling

A proposal for a regulation on ship recycling, which will implement the Hong Kong Convention, is being discussed by the European Council and European Parliament.


For more information, see background on the development of the UK ship recycling strategy on the National Archives.

Appendix 4: food waste

This was a supporting detail page of the main policy document.

We throw away 7.2 million tonnes of food and drink from our homes every year, the majority of which could have been eaten. This costs us £12 billion a year, harms the environment and wastes resources. In the UK food industry, waste is estimated to cost £5 billion per year.

Preventing food waste is better for the environment than any treatment, and can save money for businesses and households. When there is food waste, treatment by anaerobic digestion or in-vessel composting is more sustainable than landfilling, which creates greenhouse gases.

The Review of Waste Policy in England (2011) identifies food waste as a priority for action.

We are:

  • working with Waste and Resources Action Programme’s (WRAP) and businesses on voluntary agreements to reduce food and packaging waste

  • providing ideas and information to help waste less, through the WRAP’s Love Food, Hate Waste campaign

Examples of work to reduce waste include:

  • the Courtauld Commitment - a responsibility deal in the grocery retail sector which includes finding ways to reducing household waste from groceries

  • the hospitality and food service voluntary agreement, which aims to cut food and associated packaging waste by 5% and increase the overall rate of food and packaging waste that is being recycled, sent to anaerobic digestion or composted to 70% by 2015

Reducing waste in the food supply chain

WRAP estimates that:

  • waste costs businesses in the food and drink supply chain £5 billion, annually

  • the food and drink manufacturing sector alone could save about 720,000 tonnes of food and other material, worth £404 million

To help reduce and prevent waste in the whole of the food supply chain, we:

  • develop policy and conduct research
  • set an operating framework and fund WRAP to work on waste minimisation and other resource efficiency issues

This is part of our wider work to encourage sustainable production and consumption.

Appendix 5: anaerobic digestion and energy recovery from waste

This was a supporting detail page of the main policy document.

We support efficient energy recovery from residual waste, which can:

  • benefit the environment
  • reduce carbon emissions
  • provide economic opportunities

Efficient energy recovery means getting the most out of energy from waste, not putting the most waste into energy recovery. This might require a combination of energy from waste technologies. Incineration is one of these and others include pyrolysis, gasification and plasma arc.

We’re committed to increasing the proportion of energy we obtain from renewable sources to at least 15% by 2020. Energy from waste can contribute to meeting those targets.

Guidance on energy from waste

Energy from waste – a guide to the debate is designed to:

  • improve understanding of the issues and underlying evidence
  • help and promote debate on the role of energy from waste

We’ve also published updated waste technology briefs. These give detailed information about the range of energy from waste technologies available. Briefs are available on:

Anaerobic digestion

Where food waste cannot be prevented, anaerobic digestion (AD) is the best environmental option currently available. AD:

  • diverts organic waste from landfill
  • generates renewable energy
  • creates a digestate that can replace artificial fertilizers

Increasing the use of anaerobic digestion

We’re working to increase energy from waste produced by AD. We set out our plans for this in the Anaerobic digestion strategy and action plan (June 2011), which we developed in collaboration with more than 50 organisations.

Important actions that we’re taking include:

  • setting up a £10 million loan fund to support new AD capacity (£3 million of which is for farmers developing small scale AD on their farms)
  • creating an innovation fund to bring down costs of AD
  • projects to develop markets for digestate (a by-product of AD)

The second annual report (August 2013) showed continued progress and steady growth in the number of AD plants in the UK.

Find more information on the AD portal.

More about generating energy from waste.

Appendix 6: hazardous waste

This was a supporting detail page of the main policy document.

Hazardous waste, if mismanaged, can cause greater harm to the environment and human health than non-hazardous. Strict controls apply from the point of its production, to its movement, management, and recovery or disposal.

Hazardous waste accounts only for a small percentage of total waste (around 3% in 2008) but the amounts produced are still significant (around 4.8 million tonnes in 2008). We’re working with industry to reduce the amount and level of hazard of this waste.

National policy statement on hazardous waste

New, nationally significant infrastructure for the management of hazardous waste is needed to protect the environment and human health and to allow us to manage hazardous waste in a more sustainable way, recycling and recovering the waste where possible.

The National Policy Statement (NPS) was designated (published as final) by the Secretary of State on 18 July 2013 and sets out Government policy for the hazardous waste infrastructure. The NPS provides a framework for the Secretary of State, but also provides guidance throughout for potential developers and in particular advises on what should be included in their assessment of the potential impacts of a particular project:

Strategy for hazardous waste management in England

The ‘Strategy for hazardous waste management in England’ (2010) sets out the principles for the management of hazardous waste and helps waste producers and managers:

  • make the right decisions about their waste
  • identify the available treatment facilities available

We’ve also published guidance on applying the waste hierarchy to hazardous waste.

To help determine if your waste is hazardous, consult Technical Guidance WM2 document on the Environment Agency’s hazardous waste pages. The Environment Agency also publishes guidance on the hazardous waste regime, including notification (and the on-line notification facility).


The European Hazardous Waste Directive (91/689/EEC) was replaced by the revised European Waste Framework Directive (2008/98/EC).

The directive provides that additional record keeping, monitoring and control obligations from the ‘cradle to the grave’ are required when managing hazardous waste over non-hazardous waste, and that greater attention is required when different categories of hazardous wastes are mixed with each other or with non hazardous wastes.

Permit exemptions that may be granted to installations dealing with hazardous wastes are more restrictive than for installations dealing with other wastes. In the UK, hazardous wastes are covered by:


Further guidance is available on:

Appendix 7: packaging waste, producer responsibility regimes

This was a supporting detail page of the main policy document.

The UK has a statutory producer responsibility regime for packaging. This places a legal obligation on businesses which make or use packaging (like raw materials manufacturers, converters, packer/fillers and sellers) to ensure that a proportion of the packaging they place on the market is recovered and recycled.

UK packaging waste recovery and recycling targets for 2013 to 2017

On 21 March 2012, as part of the Budget, new packaging targets for 2013 to 2017 were announced. These reflected the preferred option based on responses received from our consultation.

The targets apply to businesses under the Producer Responsibility Regulations.

They will ensure that the UK continues to meet EU Directive targets over the next 5 years.

Material 2012 (%) 2013 (%) 2014 (%) 2015 (%) 2016 (%) 2017 (%)
Paper/card 69.5 69.5 69.5 69.5 69.5 69.5
Glass 81 81 81 81 81 81
Aluminium 40 43 46 49 52 55
Steel 71 72 73 74 75 76
Plastic 32 37 42 47 52 57
Wood 22 22 22 22 22 22
Total recovery 74 75 76 77 78 79
Of which recycling 68.1 69 69.9 70.8 71.8 72.7

As these targets only apply to obligated businesses, the overall level of recycling and recovery will be lower.

From 2013, there will also be split targets for glass. The targets for individual businesses with an obligation in glass will be:

2013 (%) 2014 (%) 2015 (%) 2016 (%) 2017 (%)
Proportion of glass that must come from remelt 63 63 63 64 64

Progress so far

In 2011 the UK disposed of an estimated 10.8 million tonnes of packaging waste, of which around 67% was recovered. In 1998 only 27% of packaging waste was recovered.

2011 recovery and recycling achievement data
Total packaging waste arising (tonnes) Total recovered/recyled (tonnes) EU Target (%) Recovery/recycling rate (%)
Paper 3,817,860 3,232,461 60 84.8
Paper composting   6,727    
Glass 2,739,989 1,751,852 60 63.9
Aluminium 160,877 73,683   45.8
Steel 648,740 373,714   57.6
Metal   447,397 50 55.3
Plastic 2,515,809 609,910 22.5 24.2
Wood composting   442    
Wood 1,023,939 600,276 15 58.7
Other 22,443      
Total recycling   6,649,065 55 60.8
Energy from Waste   685,612    
Total Recovery 10,929,657 6,641,896 60.0 67.1


The producer responsibility regime implements the Directive on Packaging and Packaging Waste (94/62/EC), amended by Directive 2004/12/EC.

The Producer Responsibility Obligations (Packaging Waste) Regulations 2007 (as amended) cover recycling and recovery, while the Packaging (Essential Requirements) Regulations 2003 (as amended) cover single market and optimisation aspects.

More about the regulations and how to comply.

Appendix 8: disposing of tyres

This was a supporting detail page of the main policy document.


The UK produces around 55 million waste tyres a year. If not properly reused, recycled or disposed of, waste tyres can:

  • harm the environment
  • affect local communities, for example with flytipping and fires

Some criminals are charging people to collect their waste tyres and then illegally dumping or exporting them to avoid the costs of proper treatment. This can affect legitimate businesses who may be priced out of the market.

Illegally dumped tyres can pose a serious fire risk. Burning tyres can cause pollution, releasing toxic smoke and chemicals. The cost of fighting these fires and clearing up afterwards is high. Often private landowners are left paying the bill.


Fighting illegal disposal of tyres

We are working with tyre retailers, disposers and their respective trade associations to make sure tyres are disposed of correctly. This will help them to meet the requirements of the waste duty of care.

Where tyres are disposed of illegally, we work with the police, local authorities and other partners to clear up the mess. This includes:

  • identifying who is dumping tyres
  • investigating patterns of dumping, where there are ongoing problems
  • sharing intelligence to disrupt, stop and prosecute those breaking the law
  • removing the tyres that have been dumped
  • making sure people know what is expected of them when disposing of tyres

Stop notices

The Environment Agency can serve stop notices to stop illegal tyre activity. Any company served with a stop notice must comply with the conditions which may include:

  • stopping them taking any more waste tyres at their site
  • removing existing stock piles to an authorised site

Making use of waste tyres

There are a number of ways to reuse waste tyres. They can provide fuel for cement kilns or be turned into products like flooring, road surfaces, furniture and shoes. Bales of tyres can be used in the construction of modern engineered landfill sites and flood defences. If waste tyres are in good condition, they can be re-moulded and put back on the road as ‘re-treads’.

Appendix 9: waste infrastructure delivery programme

This was a supporting detail page of the main policy document.

England needs to reduce the amount of waste going to landfill to help ensure the UK meets the EU Landfill Directive targets for 2020. England will need to reduce to amount of Biodegradable Municipal Waste (BMW) it sends to landfill each year, to no more than 10.2 million tonnes.

To meet these targets Defra is investing some £3 billion of grant funding in a number of waste infrastructure projects. These will help reduce the amount of waste sent to landfill, improve recycling and boost economic growth. This grant is paid over the 25-year operating life of each project. All grant funding has now been allocated and we are not planning to fund any new projects.

Local authorities can use this grant to help pay for services provided by others who can treat waste and divert BMW from landfill.

Latest national forecast

In 2012 England sent 8.1 million tonnes of BMW to landfill which means we are already on track to meet the 2020 target. We routinely monitor our progress towards meeting the 2020 target and based on reasonable assumptions, we expect to meet the target for 2020. We published our latest forecast of 2020 waste arisings and treatment capacity in October 2014 as part of our decision on the Hertfordshire County Council scheme.

Defra has implemented the main recommendations from the review of methodology for forecasting waste infrastructure requirements.

Decisions by ministers on schemes

Hertfordshire County Council

On 16 October 2014 ministers notified Hertfordshire County Council (HCC) that Defra were withdrawing funding for their residual waste treatment project. Defra reviewed the project following a breach of the terms under which the Defra funding was originally agreed. HCC had not achieved satisfactory planning permission by a particular date.

Latest forecasts show there is now sufficient likelihood of England meeting our share of the UK’s landfill targets. Read the latest forecast and analysis of Hertfordshire County Council’s residual waste treatment project.

The methodology used was the same as that used for the previous published analysis in February 2013 and October 2013.

The terms under which funding would be provided were made clear to Hertfordshire County Council in our Waste Infrastructure Credit letter of 27 July 2011.

Norfolk County Council

Ministers decided in October 2013, after a review, to revoke the offer of financial support to Norfolk County Council (NCC). The review was prompted by a breach of the terms and conditions under which funding was originally agreed. Ministers considered all relevant factors, including the likelihood of England making the necessary contribution towards the UK meeting the 2020 EU Landfill Directive target. Based on analysis and evidence, they concluded that it is sufficiently likely that the target will be met without a contribution from the Norfolk project.

The details of the analysis that informed this decision was published in a report. The methodology used was the same as that used for the previous published analysis in February 2013. However, the analysis has been updated to take account of national waste statistics published in August 2013.

February 2013 decisions

In February 2013 ministers decided to withdraw the provisional allocation of waste infrastructure credits. This affected the 3 remaining local authority-led projects that had yet to reach financial close. The local authorities affected were:

  • Bradford and Calderdale
  • Merseyside Recycling and Waste Authority and Halton
  • North Yorkshire and City of York

The local authorities were advised of this decision on 21 February 2013.

Defra published details of the analysis that informed the decision in February 2013.

Guidance for local authorities

We’ve published guidance for local authorities undertaking waste infrastructure projects, including:

Appendix 10: charging for single use plastic carrier bags

This was a supporting detail page of the main policy document.


In 2013, supermarkets gave out over 8 billion single-use carrier bags across the UK. That is nearly 130 bags per person. This equates to about 57,000 tonnes of single-use carrier bags in total over the year.

Discarded plastic bags are a very visible form of littering and can cause injury to marine wildlife. The effect of plastic bags on the environment goes beyond littering. They consume resources, including oil, in their creation. Even when disposed of responsibly, plastic bags can last for long periods of time in landfill sites.

We expect that this targeted, proportionate charge will reduce the number of plastic bags used in England, increase their re-use and reduce littering.


We have introduced a 5p charge on single-use plastic carrier bags in England from 5 October 2015. There is already a similar 5p charge on single-use bags in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

The Single Use Carrier Bags Charges (England) Order 2015 was made on 19 March 2015. We have published guidance which explains how retailers should comply with the charging scheme. It deals with the definition of bags subject to the 5p charge, exemptions and what reasonable costs can be deducted from the proceeds

Exemptions for small and medium-sized businesses

We have chosen to exempt small and medium-sized (SME) businesses from the plastic bag charge in England. This will reduce the administrative burden on both start-up and growing businesses at a time when we are supporting new growth in our economy. We must also consider the impact on consumers.

Other exemptions are set out in our guidance to retailers.

Biodegradable bags

We recognise that there will always be a need for some form of single use bag for impulse buys. For these bags our aim is a genuinely biodegradable plastic bag that meets defined criteria and which can also be identified and separated in waste recovery and treatment operations. We are not aware that such a plastic bag currently exists.

We are working with industry and academic experts to review existing standards for biodegradability. We will report to Parliament in October 2015 on whether there are suitable standards that could be applied to biodegradable bags for them to be exempted from the 5p charge. Any exemption for biodegradable bags would be introduced by amending the law.

Improving waste separation

As people use more biodegradable plastic in this country, we’ll need more sophisticated ways to separate plastic waste so that it can be properly recycled. We launched a Small Business Research Initiative with Innovate UK to encourage new ways of developing bags which are more biodegradable. This work is also looking at how we might separate different types of plastic. As part of this, we have paid around £80,000 for four short studies, which have now been completed:

Based on the results of these studies we have decided to continue with a further stage of research. This will be looking at a promising film developed by Aquapak Polymers. This research will cost approximately £200,000 and will aim to develop the film into a prototype biodegradable bag. If this is successful, then Defra will spend approximately £180,000 more to develop ways of separating different types of waste.


Since 2006, the retail industry made some important changes to reduce the huge amount of plastic bags that we use in this country, including marketing Bags for Life more clearly. As a result carrier bag distribution fell by 32% between 2006 and 2012.

While this represented significant progress, single-use carrier bag distribution started to creep back up in England between 2010 and 2013 by 18%. During the same period, the introduction of a charge on carrier bags in Wales resulted in a fall in carrier bag usage of 79%.

The proposed plastic bag charge in England is a targeted, proportionate approach to the problem of carrier bag distribution and littering. It will therefore focus on plastic bags and not on paper bags, as paper bags make up less than 0.1% of carrier bags distributed in the UK by the seven major supermarket retailers.

Charging in the UK

In Wales, there has been a minimum charge of 5p on single-use carrier bags since 2011. Their charge includes paper bags and applies to all organisations (including SMEs). The Welsh government has a voluntary agreement with retailers under which the proceeds of the charge are given to good causes. Scotland introduced a minimum charge of 5p on carrier bags in October 2014, which is similar to that in Wales.

In Northern Ireland, there has been a minimum charge of 5p on single-use carrier bags since April 2013. The charge applies to single-use bags made from plastic, paper, plant-based materials or natural starch. A proposed rise to 10p in April 2014 was cancelled, as the charge had been so successful. The proceeds from the charge go to the Northern Ireland Department of the Environment and £1 million has just been allocated to provide funding for communities and organisations to develop local environmental projects.

Ireland introduced a levy of 15 cents (13p) on plastic bags in 2002, rising to 22 cents (18p) in 2007. The proceeds from the levy go to the Irish government and are put into an Environment Fund. It has been estimated that usage of plastic bags in Ireland has fallen by over 90% since the introduction of the levy.

Further information on any of the charges in the devolved nations of the UK is available:

Who we’ve consulted

Between 25 November 2013 and 20 December 2013, we published a call for evidence asking for evidence on aspects of how the plastic bag charge in England will work. We received 185 responses to the questions in the call for evidence (as well as more than 2,000 e-mails on the shape of the charge more broadly) which were taken into account when formulating the charge.