Shoppers in England face a 5p charge to use plastic carrier bags as of Monday as part of a UK government scheme to reduce litter and protect wildlife.
Environmental campaigners have warned that all shops in Britain should place the 5 pence tax on plastic bags to prevent further damage to the environment.
Friends of the Earth are urging ministers to extent the compulsory 5 pence scheme to all retailers, and not to limit it to just the larger grocery stores as it currently stands.
According to the government, 8.5bn thin-gauge plastic bags were used last year by customers of UK supermarkets alone. That is down from the all-time peak of 12bn in 2006, but still amounts to more than 23m a day.
In England the average person goes through nearly 12 thin-gauge bags per month, while in Wales, where there has been a 5p charge per bag since 2011, shoppers use just two per month. On the basis of charging elsewhere, the government expects bag numbers to fall by more than 70% – cutting the number ending up in landfill or in the oceans by many billions every year.
Retailers have tried to take the sting out of the looming charge by emphasising the benefits to local causes. The government estimates that more than £70m a year – and the lion’s share generated by supermarkets – will be raised for good causes across England.
At Tesco, for example, customers will get the chance to vote in store and online for the projects they most want to see go ahead in their own local areas.
Some shoppers are puzzled about the exemptions to the rules, which include corner shops, and when they are buying food items that need more protection, such as fresh fish. Only larger retailers who employ more than 250 people will have to levy the charge, which environmental campaigners who otherwise welcome the change say makes absolutely no sense.
David Powell, senior resources campaigner at Friends of the Earth, says: “The English charge is a good start, but it makes no sense that it only applies to big retailers. Shoppers will get mixed messages depending on where they shop. This could defeat the main point of the charge in the first place – to change the way people and stores think about over-using plastic bags.”
The initiative appears to have the support of the majority of shoppers in England, with 62% thinking it is reasonable to charge 5p for all carrier bags – a 6% increase on 2012, a poll for the Break the Bag Habit coalition of litter charities found.
But the survey found 51% were in support of an even more comprehensive scheme that extended the charge to all retailers.