The new regulations will apply to businesses with 250 or more full time equivalent employees, and will require them to charge for bags and submit annual compliance reports for the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). Smaller businesses will not have to charge, but will be encouraged to do so voluntarily. Once retailers have deducted reasonable costs, it is expected that they will donate the proceeds from the charge to good causes as is already the case with similar schemes in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales.
Retail expert Andrea McIlroy-Rose of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said that the implementation of a plastic bag charge in England was "always inevitable, given the success of the charges brought into the rest of the UK during the course of the last few years".
"In this case, what the government has done is refined the legislation for England so that it applies only to larger businesses and, in time, I believe that the rules will be rationalised across the UK," she said. "The charges generate a lot of revenue, are easier to administer than was originally thought and are good for the environment, so really they will face no real opposition."
The new charge is being introduced as a “targeted, proportionate” means of reducing the number of plastic bags used in England and encouraging their use. In 2013, supermarkets gave out over eight billion single-use carrier bags across the UK, or nearly 130 bags per person.
Once the charge comes into force, large retailers will be required to charge at least 5p for new, plastic carrier bags with handles that are 70 microns thick or less, whenever goods are either sold in or delivered to England. Retailers will not be required to charge for sealed packaging. There are a number of exemptions covering specific types of goods including uncooked meat or fish, unwrapped food for human or animal consumption, unwrapped blades, loose seeds and prescription medication. These are set out in guidance for retailers.
Unlike in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, English retailers will not have to charge for paper bags. There is not currently an exemption for ‘super-biodegradable’ plastic bags, however the UK government will consider such an exemption to encourage the development of a more environmentally-friendly bag at a later date.
The new regulations will apply to businesses with 250 full-time equivalent employees or more at the start of any given reporting year, regardless of how many of those employees work in retail roles. The first reporting year will run from 5 October 2015 to 6 April 2016, and then from 7 April to 6 April the following year thereafter. Retailers will be required to record the number of bags supplied, the gross and net proceeds of the charge, any VAT in the gross proceeds, what they did with the gross proceeds and any deductible reasonable costs for any given reporting year, and to submit this information to Defra by 31 May following the end of the reporting year.
Local authorities will enforce the regulations; although retailers that operate across multiple local authorities will only have to deal with one authority under the ‘primary authority scheme’. Local authority inspectors will be able to visit stores at reasonable times and make test purchases, and will be able to question staff and demand relevant documentation if they believe a breach of the regulations has taken place. Retailers may be issued with fixed or variable fines if they do not charge at least 5p for the appropriate bags, do not keep or supply records or mislead on how they are complying with the law. They may also be required to publicise that they have broken the law.
Wales introduced a minimum 5p charge on single-use carrier bags, including paper bags, in 2011. This charge applies to all organisations including small businesses, and the proceeds for the charge are given to good causes under a voluntary agreement with retailers. A similar charge was introduced in Scotland in October 2014. In Northern Ireland, a 5p charge was introduced on single-use bags made from plastic, paper, plant-based materials or natural starch in April 2013. The proceeds from this charge go to Northern Ireland’s Department of the Environment which distributes them to local environmental projects.