Is charging for single use carrier bags the way forward for Scotland?

Written by: RWW | Published:

Last week Scotland introduced a charge for single use carrier bags. Is it going to achieve the same success in reducing the use of plastic carrier bags as the schemes that were launched in Wales and Northern Ireland? David Burrows investigates.

Whether they are made from plastic, paper or some plant-based materials, if you want a single use carrier bag (SUCB) when you go shopping in Scotland then you'll have to pay 5p. It doesn't seem much; even considering the country's five million people get through eight hundred million bags - 160 each - it's still only £8 a head.

However, let's not forget that the proceeds might end up with good causes - and five pence times eight hundred million is £40m. But Scotland, which currently uses more bags per head than anywhere else in the UK, won't be giving out 800 million bags anymore; within a year or two usage will fall to about 200 million or so if the results from Northern Ireland and Wales are anything to go by.

Indeed, much has been made of the dramatic reductions in carrier bag use following the introduction of charges in those two countries.

Northern Ireland's has been in place for 18 months and usage is down 80%, while Wales has just celebrated the third anniversary of its charge and a 75% cut.

However, a look at the way shopping habits are changing suggests those kinds of figures might be a tad ambitious.

The UK food and grocery market is set to be worth £206bn by 2018, which represents an increase of over a fifth (21%) from its current value of £170bn.

While superstores and hypermarkets generate the most sales of any type of grocery format, they will grow at a considerably slower rate in comparison to the top three formats, namely: online, convenience and food discounters.

As grocery research experts IGD have noted, both online and convenience retailing are “reaping the rewards" of our changing lifestyles: more of us own smartphones and tablets so online grocery shopping is becoming more popular.

Cultural shift

Convenience stores are also benefiting from a 'cultural shift' towards shopping 'little and often', says IGD. They are increasingly providing products tailored to specific locations rather than a 'one size fits all' approach.

“With their sales set to rise by over £10bn over the next five years, we're forecasting convenience to bring in the biggest cash growth of any type of grocery retailing between 2013 and 2018," says chief executive Joanne Denney-Finch.

With people shopping little and often, the chances of remembering the bags every time reduce - so changing behaviour will take more time.

“We may already be seeing the beginning of the end of the large store format," explains Barry Turner CEO at the Packaging and Films Association (PAFA). “What this will mean for grocery bags is probably that more of them will be used and, yes, this will offset some of the reduction anticipated by recent carrier bag campaigns and charges."

By how much, it is impossible to say, but figures published by WRAP in July show that use of SUCBs has risen in each of the past four years. From 2006 to 2009, the number of bags used fell from 12.2bn to 7.2bn, but since then the numbers have been creeping up steadily and hit 8.3bn last year (see table below).

That the tide turned in 2009, as the economic downturn bit hard and shopping habits began to shift, is certainly worth noting.

WRAP did note a positive trend from the data: that 40% of supermarkets now have front-of-store recycling facilities available for carrier bags. But again it's worth noting that this fell from 60% as a result of convenience stores being included. So while larger format stores may have recycling bins available for bags, more and more of their customers are frequenting the smaller stores with no bins.

PAFA's Turner notes this as an “unintended impact" of “policies against bags", with retailers taking the bins away.

“It would appear that in its attempt to reduce the overall environmental footprint, the green lobby, by focusing on a product that had a very small footprint in the first place, may have stalled a wider recycling initiative that had the potential to offer a recovery outlet for materials that can be difficult to handle and separate by most mechanical recycling facilities," explains Turner.

Given that England will join Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland by introducing its own tax this time next year; there will be less bags to recycle. In South East London, PlasRecycle has a facility geared up to take 20,000 tonnes of bags a year.

The WRAP figures show the weight of all the UK bags to be a shade over 56,000 tonnes, but PlasRecycle chief executive Duncan Grierson has told RWW in the past there will be plenty of bags to go around. Ideally, though, he'll need them to be collected separately.

Online shopping and home delivery

When it comes to online shopping and, in turn, home delivery, the supermarkets appear to be offering different systems. This threatens to confuse shoppers - and further delay behaviour change. RWW asked Sainsbury's, Asda and Tesco - the three retailers in the 'big four' that offer home deliveries in Scotland - for details of their charging policies for shoppers buying online.

Asda declined to comment, while Sainsbury's and Tesco seem to be taking different approaches. Sainsbury's said it has “carefully considered" its approach and “continues to explore various delivery options both with and without bags".

However, currently bags are part of the process and, as such, there will be a “40p flat charge" which is “based on “the average number of bags used per online delivery". The money - like that collected through in-store charges - will be awarded to local charities and community groups.

A spokesman adds: “We have decided to continue with the use of plastic bags for online deliveries until an equally effective alternative can be implemented."

Bagless delivery?

Tesco seems to have found one. Its shoppers can opt for a 'bagless' delivery, which will have many products “loose in boxes" and others still in bags (fresh produce and items close to their sell by date for instance).

However, it isn't clear whether there will still be a charge for these bags or not - the flat rate for bagged deliveries will be set at 35p though. Neither supermarket would offer any detail on how the 'average number of bags per online order' was calculated.

A Scottish government spokesman says it is up to individual retailers to work out the best system for them, before adding: “We expect all retailers to follow the example of some which already give customers the option of a carrier bag-free delivery […] which fulfils the goal of reducing the number of single use carrier bags dispensed."

David Barnes at Zero Waste Scotland, says: “It's not a tax and there is no motivation to keep the number of bags up. The purpose is to reduce the number of bags."

To achieve this, behaviour will have to change. According to ZWS guidance, the bag charge aims to “encourage shoppers to think about reusing bags in order to prevent litter and combat our throwaway culture". A study in 2012 comparing shopper behaviour in Wales, where there is a charge, and Scotland where, at that time, there wasn't, showed that 47% of consumers in Scotland used new SUCBs compared to just 12% in Wales.

Time will tell whether, faced with a charge, Scotland's shoppers will embrace reusable bags to the same extent as Wales and Northern Ireland. The environment secretary is confident they will. “We've seen that similar charges have been extremely successful in other countries," says Richard Lochhead.

“I'm confident that Scotland can experience similar benefits and look forward to seeing a significant reduction in our use of carrier bags over the coming months and years."


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