Understanding the carrier bag charge

Holly Thomas / 14 October 2015

When do you have to pay for a plastic carrier bag and when are they free? Use our simple guide to get to grips with the new carrier bag charges.

Retailers in England have finally joined Wales and Scotland in charging for plastic carrier bags.

The charge is designed to limit the environmental impact of plastic bags and encourage more environmentally friendly behaviour and awareness. 

The legislation is intended to cut back on the estimated eight billion single-use carrier bags used across the UK each year.

That works out at nearly 130 bags per person and is the equivalent of 57,000 tonnes of plastic waste. The proceeds will go to charities involved in clearing up the environmental damage caused by plastic bags.

A similar 5p charge for carrier bags has been in force in Wales for the past four years. Stores there have seen a 71% fall in the number of plastic carriers used by shoppers since the charge was introduced.

Seven ways to save money at the supermarket.

And in Scotland, where the 5p charge was imposed 12 months ago, the fall has been even bigger, with numbers of plastic carrier bags down by 80%.

From 5 October shops in England have been required to charge 5p for bags – but unlike their Celtic neighbours, it’s not quite as straightforward.

Rules in England

Any retailer employing 250 members of staff or more will be required to charge 5p for every single-use plastic carrier bag they hand out to customers.

This means large supermarkets will charge... but not for all goods purchased. 

The bags you will not be charged for include:

  • Bags for uncooked fish, meat and poultry products.

  • Bags for unwrapped food for animals or human consumption, for example chips.

  • Bags for wrapped loose seeds, flowers, bulbs, corns, rhizomes or goods contaminated with soil.

  • Bags for unwrapped blades, including axes, knives, and knife and razor blades.

  • Bags for prescription medicine.

  • Bags for live aquatic creatures.

  • Woven plastic bags.

  • Bags for goods in transport.

  • Sealed packaging for mail order and click and collect orders.

  • Returnable multi-use 'bag for life' bags.

  • Bags used to give away free promotional material.

  • Bags used for a service with no sale of goods, such as dry cleaning or shoe repairs.

As the 5p charge technically only applies to bigger stores, smaller places may continue to hand bags out for free.

Such stores are, however, allowed to ask for 5p a bag, but the Association of Convenience Stores, which represents more than 33,500 local shops, said only 8,000 were planning to do so.

TOP TIP: To save wasting cash on plastic bags, keeping a bag in a zipped compartment of your handbag will help. As will keeping a healthy stash in the boot of the car.

What about home deliveries?

While all of the major supermarkets will be charging for plastic bags at their stores, the fee will also affect home deliveries. 

Most supermarkets are offering a bagless delivery service, or are charging a standard flat fee for plastic bags per shop.

Other operators, such as Morrisons and Ocado, will be charging 5p per bag for deliveries. But they will also be refunding on the plastic bags returned to recycle.

Want to save money on your shopping? Find out how to get the most from store loyalty cards.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.