Author Mark Fairlie

In 2015, all major supermarkets took a step in a greener, more eco-friendly direction by charging 5p for single-use plastic bags. The Government ruled initiative resulted in six billion fewer of the bags being used over the course of a year, according to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. However, many are now proposing the 5p charge scheme be scrapped; with Bags for Life being left as shoppers’ only choice.

The era of reusables

The idea behind the charge was that shoppers would be discouraged from wasting carrier bags, and instead reuse their old ones or buy a bag for life. Plastic bags can take up to 1000 years to decompose, making them the plight of landfills.

The Marine Conservation Society also reported that the number of plastic bags being found on UK beaches has halved since the 5p charge came in, reeling back to their lowest number in ten years.

With many shoppers using Bags for Life instead of single-use plastic bags, there have been a number of undeniable positive effects on the environment, according to the Guardian’s R Sri Ram. Although a complete switch to reusable bags may have an even greater impact, it’s likely a huge number of UK charities are set to suffer greatly.

Where does your 5p go?

When the 5p charge law came in two years ago, the government ordered supermarkets to ‘give the proceeds of the scheme to good causes’. The chains were to donate the money to a charity of their choosing which, for a while at least, worked.

In fact, it really worked. In the two years since the policy took effect, more than £95million was raised for good causes, according to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. All from an additional 5p on top of a person’s shop.

Bags for Life and the 5p plastic bag charge

This money went to a variety of honourable causes, including Alzheimer’s Research UK, with many of the major supermarkets having their own foundations to distribute the donations to community projects across the country.

As supermarkets are made to pay the VAT on the price of each bag, for each 5p sale the taxman also receives 0.83p according to the Daily Mail.

However, not all of the money collected actually ends up where it is said to go. Despite the rule to donate the funds collected from the 5p charge, some of the major supermarkets have been accused of keeping the majority of the money to cover the “cost of administering donations,” and to cover the tax they are charged.

Tesco has come under fire in recent months after it was found they deducted £3.4million of the donations as administration fees. They have since announced that they plan to withdraw their 5p carrier bags altogether, with many other supermarkets now following suit.

Bags for Life

The switch to Bags for Life means these chains will be exempt from the single-use bag charge, so they will be able to pocket all of the money made.

According to the environment department, whilst 45% of shoppers have bought a reusable bag, only 12% use them frequently. So, it is likely this option will also lead to waste. And with the long-lasting bags costing between 8p and 10p instead of the traditional 5p, supermarkets may be seeing a new stream of profit.

Whilst this change may help further improve the environment, it is these many charities that will be missing out. In fact, many supermarkets have been found trying to cheat the legislation, so that they can keep the donations themselves.

The Telegraph reported Sainsbury’s using a legal loophole by offering slightly thicker, reusable bags for 5p in all of their stores. This means they can keep as much of the proceeds as they need to restock their more expensive carrier bags, but they were also “voluntarily giving any remaining profit to charity.”