One week from today, plastic bags will cost extra. Best be prepared.
From Monday 5th October every plastic carrier bag dished out in shops in England will cost 5p (with a few exceptions, which we'll come to later). Details for consumers are here, and retailers here.
A similar law has been in operation in Wales since 2011, in Northern Ireland since 2013 and in Scotland since this time last year. England is merely catching up. Legislation was announced two years ago, at the behest of the Liberal Democrats, and is perhaps the coalition partner's final bequest to the nation. Whether you think it's great news for the environment or the nanny state gone mad is very much open to opinion.
All shops will be forced to charge for plastic carrier bags except for those with fewer than 250 full time employees. That puts Tesco and Superdrug on the charging list straight away, and even WHSmith kiosks and small branches of Spar, because it's not the size of the store that counts, it's the overall size of the retailer. Independent corner shops will however be wholly exempt, as well as local chains with relatively few outlets, but some of these may choose to opt in anyway.
Rest assured that the 5p isn't a traditional tax so your money won't end up funding the government. Instead retailers will be expected to give proceeds to good causes once 'reasonable costs' have been deducted.
The definition of a chargeable plastic bag is enshrined in law. They must be made of plastic which is 70 microns thick or less (so paper bags can still be dished out free). They must have an opening and not be sealed (so a bag of frozen peas or a wrapped loaf of bread won't count). They must have handles (so those small bags you fill with self-selected fruit or veg won't be charged). And they must be new (so if you bring old bags to the supermarket they'll not be counted... which is of course the point).
There are several exceptions to the 5p charge in cases where it would be inadvisable or unhygienic for items not to be bagged.
• raw fish, meat and poultry (and associated uncooked products)
• unwrapped food (or anything sold in leaky containers)
• unwrapped loose seeds, bulbs and flowers, or goods contaminated by soil (such as potatoes)
• unwrapped blades, including knives and axes (the legislation specifically mentions axes)
• prescription medicine
• live aquatic creatures in water
There are also some less obvious exceptions. Buy goods at an airport, on a ship or on a train and you won't be charged. Bags used to give away free promotional material will be exempt, otherwise you'd have to pay to receive a freebie. Bags used for services rather than sale of goods, for example dry cleaning, won't count. But other than that expect to pay these extra 5ps every you turn up unprepared at Sainsbury's or Debenhams or wherever.
Home delivery of supermarket groceries doesn't escape either. Food brought by delivery van to your door generally comes bagged up, often overly so, and this could cost you dear. In an attempt to avoid excess charges, and because the precise number of plastic bags won't be known at the point where you pay, most supermarkets are introducing a flat fee. For example Tesco, Sainsbury's and Waitrose will be charging an extra 40p (the equivalent of eight bags) no matter how many bags they use.
Alternatively several supermarkets are now offering 'bagless delivery', whereby all your shopping arrives in crates. This cunningly avoids the additional charge, but expect unloading to take longer, and for delivery drivers to be slowed down as a result.
'Click and collect' will also be affected (that's where you order online and then turn up at the supermarket later to receive your goods). Again expect a flat fee - Waitrose are charging 30p, no matter how many bags their acolytes distribute your groceries between. But again the surcharge can be avoided if you pick the 'bagless collection' option. For this you'll have to bring your own bags to the branch, where "a Waitrose partner will then pack your order into your carrier bags"... assuming you can put up with the additional time required and the penny-pinching embarrassment.
I'm intrigued by how the 5p charge might affect different formats of checkout...
Supermarket, till with conveyor belt: You pack your own bags, the operator charges you, no awkwardness. Supermarket, narrow till: The operator packs your bags and hands them to you. How pissed off will you be if they use 'too many'? Supermarket, self-scan: The machine'll ask whether you've brought your own bags, but what's to stop you lying and wandering off scot-free?
I'm also intrigued by how the 5p charge will affect different types of shopping...
Planned: Pop a few plastic bags in your pocket, or a reusable bag at the bottom of your handbag, and environmental salvation is assured. Unplanned: Oh bugger, I wasn't expecting to be here at the supermarket, so I haven't brought anything with me, dammit.
The preferred solution is of course to carry bags with you everywhere you go, just in case. And that's easy for some people, for example if you always drive to the supermarket, because you can stash reusable bags in the back of the car. But for many of us on foot spontaneous shopping is about to get nigglingly more expensive, as dashing into the Co-op on the way home suddenly costs us more. And presumably this also applies to buying underwear from M&S, or a book from Waterstones, or a saucepan from John Lewis, or a bottle of cheap shampoo from the 99p shop. Plan badly, and from October it'll be the £1.04 shop.
And let's not forget that reusable bags aren't the panacea they're often made out to be. A reusable bag is only any use if you remember to reuse it, not if it's sitting at home. I have half a dozen cotton bags hanging up in my kitchen which I've been given over the years, each of which took more environmental effort to produce than a plastic bag, and none of which I've ever taken to a shop. Thankfully I also have over a hundred plastic bags stashed close by, and I shall now revel in taking wrongly branded bags to the wrong supermarket... assuming I don't forget.
The consensus from the rest of the UK is that the world won't end when the new legislation is introduced, and habits will adapt quickly to the new status quo. The number of bags handed out in Wales has fallen by 78% since 2010, and in Scotland by 18% since last year, as consumers adapt their behaviour to recycle more. Meanwhile plastic bag use continues to rise in England, with latest figures suggesting an annual uptake of 7.6bn, that's about 10 bags per person per month. Expect these numbers to tumble, and for several good causes to benefit, and for streets near you to perhaps be a little tidier, after the 5p charge is introduced.