The government’s 5p plastic bag charge comes into effect from today, but doesn’t include retailers employing fewer than 250 employees as it would be too costly.
However, the Association of Convenience Stores (ACS) said around 16 per cent of England’s village newsagents and corner shops were planning to bring in the charge, regardless of the exemption.
James Lowman, CEO of the ACS, said: “We believe that the best option for England is to introduce a universal carrier bag charge that requires all stores to charge for bags, as is already the case in Wales and Scotland, but unfortunately, the government has excluded small businesses from the legislation creating confusion for both retailers and consumers.”
He added that charging for carrier bags was a “great way to raise money for local charities and help the environment”, so encouraged local retailers to introduce their own voluntary charging schemes in stores “wherever it is practical to do so”.
The aim of the charge is to cut down on the number of plastic bags being taken home by shoppers each year – often ending up causing litter, damaging wildlife and polluting the oceans. A study found that 90 per cent of seabirds have eaten plastic and are likely to retain some in their gut. A recent estimate said there was about eight million tonnes of plastic waste a year that finds its way into the oceans, increasing danger to wildlife.
On current trends, the report said by 2050 plastic ingestion would touch 99 per cent of the world’s seabird species, with nearly every individual affected.
The exemption also means that a customer may go into a Spar store somewhere and be asked to pay the 5p charge, but go to one elsewhere and not have to pay as that branch has fewer than 250 employees. Those managed under franchises escape the charge, but those controlled by head office have to take part.
The ACS has warned excluding England’s 50,000 small retailers will cause confusion for both shops and shoppers. It said the charge being universal in Wales has seen retailers raise money for more local engagement and be more involved within the community.
Meanwhile, the British Retail Consortium’s environmental policy adviser, Alice Ellison, warning the charge in England would not showcase the same environmental impact as other existing charges seen in Wales and Scotland.
“The charge leaves retailers with complex messages to communicate to shoppers, such as why some stores and some bags are exempt from charge and why these exemptions do not exist elsewhere in the UK,” she said.
Since Wales introduced the charge in 2010, plastic bag use has dropped by around 80 per cent, while Scotland and Northern Ireland have also seen significant decreases in the usage. England’s has been on the rise for the past five years, with 7.6bn single-use carrier bags used in 2014.
The government has held back on extending the charge to small firms, conscious of increasing red tape, while saying any retailer can voluntarily take part. Retailers have said they would like to follow the Scottish process where small retailers have to take part in the scheme, but aren’t compelled to take part in the annual reporting requirements – so the administrative burdens are kept down, but the environmental impact maintained.
In Wales, 90 per cent of businesses – both large and small, said that the 5p charge hadn’t impacted on trade.
The ACS estimates that around 7,000 to 8,000 of its 50,000 English members will opt to take part in the scheme – 15 per cent of the possible total. As it stands, small firms are concerned the current in-between policy will cause more administrative confusion, while the charge won’t have as wide-reaching an effect as it could do.
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