Research Consultant Jennifer Lipman takes a look at the plastic bag tax and why businesses want it to go further than planned.

Last September, to much fanfare, the Deputy Prime Minister announced Government plans for a 5 pence charge on plastic bags provided by retailers to customers, with the proceeds set to go to charity.

Timetabled to come in by autumn 2015, the policy brings England in line with Ireland and Wales, where bag taxes are already in place. Likewise, just last month the Scottish Parliament approved a similar compulsory charge.

At the time of the announcement, there were few major criticisms; many people noted that in Ireland the same policy has prompted a drop of around 80% in plastic bag use, while according tothe anti-waste group WRAP, in the first year after the tax was introduced in Wales there was a 76% reduction.

Environmentally friendly, philanthropic, and a ‘tax’ that customers can easily opt out of simply by re-using bags – what’s not to like? So as expected, last week, the plan was formally announced in the Queen’s Speech.

But while it remains relatively uncontroversial, in the months between the announcement and the Queen’s Speech, questions have been raised about the small print. And unusually for a levy that affects business, the concerns have not been around profitability, or impact on customers – but on whether the plans go far enough.

According to the Government, small and medium sized retailers that employ fewer than 250 staff members will be exempt, and the charge will focus on plastic bags, excluding paper or biodegradable ones. Yet the Association of Convenience Stores some months ago called for small retailers to also be required to charge for single-use plastic bags, emphasising that ‘there is a strong appetite among local shops’. Last week they reiterated that the exemption ‘is unnecessary and unhelpful’. The Campaign to Protect Rural England have also criticised it, arguing the exemption will cause confusion.

Critics have also called for the charge to be expanded to other types of single-use bag.  The British Retail Consortium, in their submission to the Environmental Audit Committee’s inquiry on the matter, commented that paper bags could have a similar environmental impact in terms of litter. Likewise, Jessica Baker of the company Chase Plastics warned against the exemption, saying that the fear ‘is that biodegradable or oxo-biodegradable would become the thing of choice’.

In February, the Environmental Audit Committee reported on the potential impacts, concluding that the levy promises ‘significant environmental benefits,’ but pushing for the Government to impose it on all retailers and on biodegreadable and paper bags.  Joan Walley MP, who chairs the Committee, said Ministers had made ‘a complete mess… by making it unnecessarily complicated’, adding that the proposed exemption for biodegradable bags ‘risks damaging the UK plastics recycling industry’.

Unsurprisingly, Labour have been quick to seize on the concerns, with Shadow Environment Secretary Maria Eagle MP tabling questions on the ‘potential effect on the marine environment’ of these exemptions. But Tory MPs have also expressed doubt, with Mark Pawsey MP asking for a debate on the decision.

Thus far, Defra and the Government have remained resolute, making clear their belief that the environmental benefits outweigh any concerns. Defra Minister Dan Rogerson MP has pointed out that plastic is estimated to account for more than 70% of marine debris in European seas, adding that paper bags account for not even 0.1% of carrier bags distributed in the UK by the seven major retailers. He has also explained that plastic bags take the longest to degrade in the natural environment, and thus are a case distinct from biodegradable plastic bags (although he has at times been a tad too exuberant in his defence of the plan: earlier this year the Guardian ran a story on him erroneously claimingthat the charge will cut carbon emissions by the equivalent of 2.2m cars, instead of the actually estimated 37,500).


The debate is unlikely to die down, especially with more than a year to go until the charge is in place and the details still to be ironed out. Meanwhile, those in favour of using tax to influence behaviour have set their sights on another victory: the Welsh Conservatives are now proposing a levy on junk mail.