Changes to the public’s shopping experience come in this month with new legislation introduced to charge for carrier bags. From 5th October 2015 customers will need to use their own bags or face a charge for any additional ones provided by the store itself. But what can we expect to be the overall outcome from the changes?

The changes being introduced

Large retailers in England will be required to charge shoppers a minimum of 5p for any one-use plastic carrier bag that they provide.

The legislation is similar to that already existing in Wales and Scotland. Stores that are already charging for bag usage do not need to take an additional charge.

There will be fines imposed on stores that fail to observe the legislation that is being introduced as part of a general policy to reduce waste. The changes do not extend to small or medium-sized enterprises, although they can do likewise if they so wish on a voluntary basis.

A retailer is categorised as being ‘large’ if they employ in total a minimum of 250 full-time equivalent employees. To become liable to the legislation, retailers must also sell goods in England or deliver goods to England.

Impact on the stores

  • Morrisons have been typical of the stores advertising the change at the tills to ensure that customers are made aware in advance. They will charge 5p per bag and donate the monies raised to charity.
  • Tesco have been handing out free re-usable bags in their stores in the build up to the deadline. Clearly they are hoping that this will be well-received by shoppers and engender improved shopper loyalty. A ‘bag for life’ is generally replaced without charge when it becomes unusable.
  • Additional reporting will need submitting to Defra, including details of what has happened to the charge proceeds (after costs, good causes are expected to benefit).
  • Retailers will need to be vigilant in charging for any extra bags used, especially on the self-service checkouts.

Likely impacts on the Consumer

There is likely to be some initial confusion as the public get used to the changes.

Remembering to bring sufficient carrier bags each time or pay for the privilege of new ones should not be overly onerous for many. Yet no doubt some will object to the extra cost, especially if they purchase several bags at one visit.

An interesting area to consider is that of home delivery, such as ordering online or bought in the store but then delivered to a home address. Retailers may have to consider bagless deliveries if the charges are to be avoided.

As the precise number of bags required may not be known until delivery takes place, retailers can charge for an average number of bags that are likely to be used. But they must ensure that at least 5p per bag used is still charged.

What about infrequent or impulse shoppers? Will they be put off the thought of popping in for one of two items as they pass the shop, preferring to incorporate such items into their regular shop instead?

Shoppers may need to improve their planning or keep a spare carrier somewhere on their person when out and about.

Will it Work?

Many shoppers will be familiar with the flimsy carriers that split after packing on the way to the car. Often they are thrown away at home and add to the waste. The more robust bags (‘bag for life’) already on sale at many stores are far more appropriate and are likely to become more widely used as part of becoming a more ‘savvy shopper’.

Current ‘bio-degradable’ bags are not exempt from the charge, although this may be possible in future if genuinely bio-degradable (environmentally friendly) bags can be developed.

Some may say that 5p per bag isn’t a sufficient deterrent to reduce the volume of non-re-used bags, in which case there may be little or no change to shopping patterns and therefore waste. If so, then that may necessitate a change of approach and perhaps an increase to the amount charged at a future date. It seems likely to be a step in the right direction though.

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