Policy paper

Carrier bags: why there's a charge

Updated 30 July 2016

The law requires large shops in England to charge 5p for all single-use plastic carrier bags. Charging started on 5 October 2015.

We want to reduce the use of single-use plastic carrier bags, and the litter they can cause, by encouraging people to reuse bags.

1. Which shops charge for bags

Large businesses need to charge for single-use plastic carrier bags. This applies to retailers who have 250 or more employees.

It’s not just supermarkets who are affected, many high street and out-of-town shops are also required to charge for bags. Smaller businesses can also charge on a voluntary basis if they wish.

Whether or not a shop must charge for bags depends on the size of the company that runs the shop, not on the size of an individual branch. There’s more information in our guidance for retailers.

2. Bags for life

As a shopper, you can avoid being charged by bringing your own bags. In some shops, you can buy thicker, reusable ‘bags for life’. Typically, you pay for these once, and can return them for a free replacement when they wear out.

3. When you’re not charged for a bag

There are some cases where retailers aren’t required to charge you for a bag:

  • paper bags
  • shops in airports, or on board trains, aeroplanes or ships
  • bags which only contain certain items, such as unwrapped food, raw meat and fish where there is a food safety risk, prescription medicines, uncovered blades, seeds, bulbs and flowers, or live fish

We’ve set out full details of all of the exemptions from the charge in our guidance for retailers. In cases where retailers aren’t required by law to charge for a bag, it is up to them to decide whether or not to do so. There is nothing in the law that prevents retailers from charging for bags, even where there’s an exemption.

4. Biodegradable bags

There is currently no exemption for biodegradable bags. We completed a review of industry standards for the biodegradability of lightweight plastics in December 2015. The review found that there are a number of standards for plastic bag biodegradability.

We will continue to consider the technical specifications for a genuinely biodegradable bag and how an exemption for this could be implemented.

5. Benefits: why there’s a charge

The scheme aims to reduce the use of single-use plastic carrier bags, and the litter associated with them, by encouraging people to re-use bags.

In 2014 over 7.6 billion single-use plastic bags were given to customers by major supermarkets in England. That’s something like 140 bags per person, the equivalent of about 61,000 tonnes in total.

They take longer than other bags to degrade in the environment, can damage wildlife, and are extremely visible when littered in our towns, parks and the countryside.

Despite research showing that the average household already has 40 plastic bags around the home, the number of plastic bags taken from supermarkets increased for the fifth year running in 2014.

We expect to see a significant reduction in the use of single-use plastic carrier bags as a direct result of the charge - by as much as 80% in supermarkets and 50% on the high street.

Similar 5p charges are already in place across Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The scheme in Wales saw a reduction in plastic bag consumption of 79% in its first 3 years.

We estimate that over the next 10 years the benefits of the scheme will include:

  • an expected overall benefit of over £780 million to the UK economy
  • up to £730 million raised for good causes
  • £60 million savings in litter clean-up costs
  • carbon savings of £13 million

6. How the proceeds will be used

This is not a tax and the money from the charge does not go to the government.

We expect retailers to donate the proceeds of the scheme to good causes, but it is for them to choose what to do, and which causes to support. Retailers will need to report to us about what they do with the money from the charge, and we will publish this information each year.

The charge in Wales has already generated millions of pounds for good causes.

7. Results from the scheme

In July 2016 we published a summary of the data reported by retailers during the first 6 months of the scheme, from 5 October 2015 to 6 April 2016. These initial results indicate that over this 6 month period:

  • at least £29.2 million was donated to good causes – environment, education, health, arts, charity or voluntary organisations, heritage and sports as well as local causes chosen by customers or staff
  • there was a very substantial fall in the number of single-use carrier bags used

8. Watch our video

Watch our short video for consumers and others explaining the 5p charge for single-use plastic carrier bags:

Single-use plastic carrier bag charge

Transcript of commentary on video:

From 5 October 2015, large shops in England will have to charge five pence for all single use plastic carrier bags they provide. In 2013, the major supermarkets in England gave out over 7.4 billion plastic bags – that’s 133 bags for every person. To protect our environment from litter and pollution we are committed to bringing this number down.

The five pence charge on single use plastic carrier bags could reduce usage by as much as 80% in the big supermarkets. Small retailers don’t have to charge but can do so on a voluntary basis. You can avoid paying the charge either by reusing single use plastic carrier bags, or by using multi-use bags for life. You also won’t pay a five pence charge if you’re using a paper bag, if you’re in transit, or if your bag only contains certain items, such as unwrapped food, raw meat and fish, prescription medicines, uncovered blades, seeds, bulbs and flowers, or live fish.

Retailers need to keep track of how many plastic bags they’ve given out and where the proceeds have gone … and report this to Government by 31 May every year. We expect good causes to benefit from the charge by tens of millions of pounds each year.