Analysts predict new levy on carrier bags could lead to rows at the check-out. Grant Woodward reports.
AS long as you’ve just bought an axe, you’re fine. But stick a packet of cornflakes in with your fresh fish and you’ll probably have to cough up.
The new rules on plastic bags which came into force today are not exactly what you might call clear-cut – and some predict the next few weeks could see rows break out at the check-out as customers and supermarket staff argue the toss over whether or not the new 5p levy should be paid.
The move to start charging for single-use carrier bags has been prompted by the success of similar schemes in Wales and Northern Ireland, where consumption of plastic bags – long regarded as an enemy of the environment – has fallen by up to 80 per cent.
Its aim is to slash the 7.6 billion of them handed out every year. But, confusingly, whether or not you have to pay the surcharge depends on what you buy and where you buy it. Free bags will still be provided for uncooked meat, poultry or fish, prescription medicine, certain fresh produce such as flowers or potatoes, and unwrapped ready-to-eat food such as chips. Oh, and axes.
Likewise, while retailers with 250 or more employees must charge at least 5p for the bags they provide for shopping in stores and for home deliveries, smaller shops and paper bags are exempt.
Some analysts predict that the exemptions and loopholes could lead to confusion and, in some instances, conflict.
“I can definitely see there being a few disputes at the tills,” said Catherine Shuttleworth of Leeds-based shopper and retail marketing agency Savvy Marketing.
“The list of exemptions make the whole thing more confusing than it should be. As usual, this seems to have been dreamed up in a dark room by people who don’t actually do any shopping.”
Nevertheless, a poll for the Break the Bag Habit coalition of litter charities found 62 per cent of shoppers in England – six per cent more than in 2012 – thought it was “reasonable” to charge 5p for carrier bags.
That picture was mirrored on the streets of Leeds today.
Jason Clarke, 21, said he was happy to have handed over the charge for his large bag from TK Maxx. “Five pence doesn’t bother me,” he said. “It’s my own fault for being so disorganised and not taking one with me. If it encourages people to recycle and reuse then it has to be a good thing.”
Adele Shaw, clutching a few essentials in a 5p Co-op number as she dodged the lunchtime showers was equally accepting of the new charge.
“It’s not a problem,” said the 47-year-old. “I lived in Jersey until fairly recently and they have had it over there for a while. It changed the way I shopped because I always took a canvas bag with me – although of course I managed to forget it today. Everyone’s got a stash of old plastic bags in a cupboard at home, haven’t they?”
The lone dissenting voice belonged to office worker Byron Dunkley. The 36-year-old admitted he was a little miffed to be asked to pay extra for a bag in which to carry his lunchtime snack from Greggs.
“It surprised me to be honest,” he said. “I’m just not used to it and it made me feel a bit awkward at the till. They already get tax on the food so why do we have to pay extra? If they are going to do it then why not just add it to the price?”
For Catherine Shuttleworth, the big question was what retailers plan to do with the money the new levy rakes in.
“There needs to be transparency as to where that goes because at the moment the major supermarkets aren’t the most loved people in the world,” she said.
“In Scotland and Wales they have donated it to local wildlife and conservation groups. I think shoppers will be looking for them to do something similar here in Yorkshire.”
FIVE PLASTIC BAG FACTS
The average supermarket plastic bag is estimated to take at least 20 years to decompose.
The number of plastic bags given out by major supermarkets in England has risen by 200 million in the past two years to exceed 7.6 billion last year – the equivalent of 140 per person.
The levy is expected to save £60m in litter clean-up costs.
In Northern Ireland the introduction of the charge has cut plastic bag usage by 80 per cent.
Over the next decade, the 5p levy is expected to generate £730m for good causes.