UK Politics

No 5p charge exemption for biodegradable plastic bags

Morrison's carrier bag Image copyright PA
Image caption The charges will only apply to supermarkets and other large retailers in England

Plans to exempt biodegradable plastic bags from a new 5p charge - which comes into effect in England in October 2015 - have been dropped.

It comes after fears they would contaminate the plastics recycling process and confuse shoppers.

But customers of smaller shops will still escape the 5p charge.

The government has rejected calls by the Environmental Audit Committee to include all retailers - not just supermarkets and major stores - in it.

The committee has warned that this will put England out of step with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, where all plastic bags are, or will be, included in a charging scheme.

The cross-party group of MPs says allowing so many retailers to escape the charge will limit the environmental benefits of the policy.


Labour MP Joan Walley, who chairs the Environmental Audit Committee, said: "The 5p bag charge is the right solution - it will reduce litter, cut carbon emissions and reduce waste.

"Despite our committee's recommendations, the government has decided not to apply the charge across the board, but to go ahead with its proposed exemptions.

"That risks diluting the benefits of the charge. The decision to only include large retailers is particularly short-sighted and ignores calls from all of the main small retailer organisations to be included in the scheme."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The government proposes free plastic bags for buyers of knives or axes

But she added that she was "pleased" the government had agreed to drop its proposed exemption for biodegradable plastic bags, after fears of a contamination risk to plastic recycling and the potential confused messages shoppers would get.

The government - in its response to the committee's report - said manufacturers had yet to come up with a biodegradable bag that could be easily identified and separated in the recycling process and it was "not aware that such a plastic bag currently exists".

Paper bags, which are used by some High Street retailers, will be exempt from the charge in England - unlike the rest of the UK, prompting criticism from the committee.

The government says paper bags make up less than 0.1% of carrier bags distributed in the UK by the seven major supermarkets.

But the committee said the Department for the Environment and Rural Affairs did not give data on the use of paper bags by other retailers, such as High Street stores.

"Therefore, a shopper could be faced with having to pay for a bag in some stores but not in others, depending on which material was used," said the Environmental Audit Committee.

Image copyright PA
Image caption In Wales plastic bags are free for those buying goldfish

The government has said some trade bodies were opposed to including small retailers in the charge - but the committee found that some of the main retail organisations, such as the Association of Convenience Stores, the National Federation of Retail Newsagents and the British Retail Consortium supported it.

Mrs Walley said: "The government should think again about an exemption for small businesses. The government says simply that some trade bodies are opposed. The government should tell us which trade bodies are against, so that we can see exactly what the evidence says for ourselves."


For Labour, shadow environment secretary Maria Eagle claimed the whole scheme had been delayed because Environment Secretary Owen Paterson wanted an exemption for biodegradable bags "even though scientists said this was a flawed policy that would damage the environment and the recycling industry".

She described the change of plan "an embarrassing U-turn on his fantasy biodegradable bags" and said the decision to exempt some retailers "undermined the scheme".

The Break the Bag Habit campaign, backed by organisations including Keep Britain Tidy, the Marine Conservation Society, the Campaign to Protect Rural England and Surfers against Sewage, criticised the failure to include paper bags.

Campaigners said the move ignored evidence that fast food retailers used paper bags for their products and it was one of the most commonly littered items.

Samantha Harding, on behalf of the Break the Bag Habit campaign, said: "The government's commitment to blundering on with a scheme at odds to all professional advice is mystifying and frustrating.

"We urgently want to see paper bags and small retailers included in the scheme."

The government expects the plastic bag charge to raise around £70m for charity, which shops will donate directly. The EAC wants the £19 million that will be raised as VAT from the charge to also go to environmental good causes.

Wales introduced a 5p charge for plastic bags in October 2011, leading to a significant reduction in their use. Northern Ireland followed in April 2013 and Scotland will introduce a scheme in October this year - none of these schemes have exemptions for small retailers.

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