As of 5 October 2015, large retail businesses are legally required to charge for singleuse plastic carrier bags. The scheme aims to reduce the use of such bags and the litter associated with them, by encouraging their re-use. With penalties being imposed for those breaching their obligations, it is vital that you are aware of the changes coming into force.

Why are the government introducing this charge?

In 2014 over 7.6 billion single-use plastic bags were given to customers by major supermarkets in England. These types of bags, which take longer to degrade in the environment than other types of carriers, create unsightly littering and can also be dangerous to wildlife.

By introducing the charge, the Government expects to see a significant decrease in the use of plastic carrier bags with estimated reductions as high as 80% in supermarkets and 50% on the high street. It is estimated that over the next ten years the advantages of the scheme will be:

  • An overall benefit of over GBP 780 million to the UK economy
  • Up to GBP 730 million raised for good causes
  • GBP 60 million saved in litter clean-up cost
  • GBP 13 million in carbon saving cost

When must you charge?

Businesses must charge at least 5 pence per single-use plastic carrier bag where they employ 250 or more full time equivalent employees and sell or deliver goods in England. Businesses with fewer than 250 full time equivalent employees do not have to charge. Stores that are part of a franchise or symbol group only count their own employees; not those of the franchise or symbol group as a whole.

What types of bags must you charge for?

The new law applies to bags which have an opening, are not sealed and are:

  • Unused
  • Plastic
  • With handles
  • 70 microns thick or less

What types of bags do not incur a charge?

There is no charge for plastic bags that are:

  • For uncooked fish, fish products, uncooked meat, poultryand their products
  • For unwrapped food for animal or human consumption
  • For unwrapped loose seeds
  • For unwrapped blades, including axes, knives and razor blades
  • For prescription medicine
  • For live aquatic creatures in water
  • Woven plastic bags
  • For goods in transport, such as at an airport or on a train, plane or ship
  • Considered as sealed packaging for mail order and click-and-collect orders
  • Returnable multiple use bags (bags for life)
  • Used to give away free promotional material
  • Used for a service but with no sale of goods, such as dry cleaning or shoe repairs

A bag can contain multiple items from this list and not incur a charge. However, if the bag contains other items then you must charge. For example, you wouldn’t charge for a bag containing an unwrapped blade, but adding a box of cornflakes means you would have to charge.

What must retailers do?

Retailers must make every effort to ensure that they charge for self-checkout bags and must keep records for three years. These records must be sent to Defra on or before 31 May following the end of the reporting year. The reporting year runs from 5 October 2015 to 6 April 2016, then from 7 April to 6 April from 2016 onwards.

Retailers must also record the number of bags supplied, the gross and net proceeds of the charge, any VAT in the gross proceeds, what they did with the proceeds and any reasonable costs and how they break down.

Once the retailer has deducted reasonable costs, it is for the retailer to choose what to do with the proceeds. However, retailers must report to the Government where they invest the proceeds and these details will be published each year. It is expected that retailers will donate the proceeds of the scheme to good causes. 

Inspection and enforcement

The local authority will ensure that the law is being followed. For home deliveries, the relevant local authority will be the one where the goods were dispatched from. If delivered from outside England, the local authority will be the one in which the goods were received.

The local authority can impose a fine on a business if it:

  • Does not charge at least five pence per single use carrier bag
  • Does not keep records
  • Does not supply records
  • Misleads in respect of the steps taken to comply with the law

The local authority can also:

  • Issue a non-compliance notice with steps to be taken to correct a breach
  • Impose a fixed or discretionary penalty notice
  • Order a business to advertise its breach of the law, the penalty imposed and how it now seeks to comply
  • Recover the cost of the investigation from non-compliantbusinesses

Fixed penalities

Click here to view the table.

Variable penalties

Click here to view the table.

Appeals

An appeal against a penalty notice must be made within 28 days if where the business feels it was wrong, unreasonable or based on an error. An appeal can also be brought in

circumstances where the business believes the nonmonetary requirement is unreasonable or the variable amount penalty too high.

Response

The charges now in force in England are much more complex to those already in place in Scotland and Wales with the result that Defra is offering training to Local Authorities to ensure that the scheme is properly enforced. Certainly the ability of Trading Standards Officers to impose civil sanctions on errant businesses is a new stream of local authority enforcement activity and maintains the recent commitment to look beyond the criminal law to enforce legislation designed to protect our environment.