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Why are carrier bags 5p now? – Explanation & alternatives to save you money

Sustainability, Thrifty

You have probably noticed by now, that most shops in the UK are charging 5p per carrier bag at the checkouts. It’s caused some confusion and has caused more than a few cross words over the last couple of weeks, at tills across the country. Lets take a look at why carrier bags now cost you money, and the thinking behind this new cost.

Why shops started to charge 5p per carrier bag:

On the 5th October 2015 the Law in the UK changed making it compulsory for larger shops to charge for every ‘single use’ carrier bag. This law affects all of the shops and supermarket chains with over 250 employees. This law does not affect the smaller shops at the moment, but they can choose to charge 5p per bag as well, if they wish to, on a voluntary basis.

When carrier bags are free:
Some items are allowed a free carrier bag, often due to health and safety reasons. Free carrier bag items are as follows: unwrapped food, raw meat and fish where there is a food safety risk, prescription medicines, uncovered blades, seeds, bulbs and flowers, or live fish.

You can read the full terms and conditions set out for retailers on this government web page about the carrier bag charge.

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61,000 tonnes of carrier bag waste in 2014

Why the government want us to re-use or use less carrier bags:
Single use carrier bags cause lots and lots of litter (at least 61,000 tonnes of litter in 2014). Because they are currently thought of as quite a disposable item, many are thrown away in the rubbish bin, or discarded in the street, the average person uses 140 single use carrier bags per year! UK landfills are full of all of our old carrier bags. As well as causing lots of litter, discarded carrier bags are dangerous and destructive for wildlife in the town and country. And, lets face it, tumble-weed carrier bags blowing in the breeze are not such a pretty sight.

Reducing the amount of ‘single use’ carrier bags will really help our environment and ensure that our shopping habits are as sustainable as possible in the long term.

Where does the money go:
The 5p charge is not a government tax and they do not get the money raised from the carrier bags. The money goes to the supermarkets and shops directly, the shops have to keep track of their carrier bag income and it is hoped that the majority will put the 5p charge to good causes and charities. The 5p charge is already in place in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. The charge in Wales has, so far, generated millions of pounds for good causes, so the government’s hopes were well-placed.

The government estimate that the 5p charge will have the following benefits over the next 10 years:

  • an expected overall benefit of over £780 million to the UK economy
  • up to £730 million raised for good causes
  • £60 million savings in litter clean-up costs
  • carbon savings of £13 million

You can read a full breakdown of the government’s explanation for the 5p carrier bag charge on their website.

Alternatives to carrier bags:

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Recycled material shopping bags

I’m sure that we’ve all seen some interesting, creative alternatives for carrier bags over the last couple of weeks. As a few irate customers discover the 5p charge at the checkout and decide not to pay it, they invent new ways to carry their shopping home.

Some of the funnier scenes have included an angry chap in Iceland turning up the bottom of his jumper to make a kind of bulky kangaroo pouch to pile his shopping into – A few pedantic patrons marching out of supermarkets with arms full of shopping balanced here there and everywhere, apart from in a carrier bag. Some supermarkets have even trained their till staff to resolve the arguments that the 5p charge might provoke.

Save yourself from feeling miffed, save a stranger from feeling miffed – carry these alternatives to the carrier bag around with you…

    • Bag for Life – often costs 10p-£1 at the checkout, is supermarket branded, thicker and much sturdier than a ‘single use’ carrier bag and lasts for lots of shopping trips and often the supermarket will replace a worn out bag with a new one for free! This saves you lots of money in the long run
    • A fabric tote bag, made from recycled material – they fold, or roll up, small enough to fit into a handbag or pocket, and they are very strong
    • If you have driven to the supermarket – re-use a cardboard box to carry your groceries. Just pack loose shopping from the shopping trolley into the cardboard box in your car boot
    • Similarly, you could re-use stackable, plastic storage boxes from your home, keeping them in your car boot
    • Start wearing a backpack or carrying a large shoulder bag, such as a messenger bag
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Shopping trolleys – not just for pensioners!

  • a small fabric shopping trolley with wheels. Once the favourite of pensioners across the UK, these useful carryalls are making a comeback for all ages, thanks to how much you can cram into them and the fact that you don’t need to carry the weight of the shopping – the wheels do that for you
  • A fold up, into a little pouch with a clip, fabric shopping bag – these can be found in any pound shop and in some charity shops and are usually water-resistant too
  • According to government research, the average household is supposed to have about 40 carrier bags stuffed around the house – Go through your cupboards at home and find all of those unloved old carrier bags that may be lurking. Grab a handful and keep them in your bag or pockets for reusing at the checkout. You could do a frustrated stranger a favour by ensuring you have enough for them also at the checkout.

Feel free to share your ideas for carrier bag alternatives, or amusing checkout stories, in the comments section below.


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A few self-sufficient, thrifty or off-the-grid selections, including Solar Panel Chargers. Toys and tools that I’m saving up for!

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7 thoughts on “Why are carrier bags 5p now? – Explanation & alternatives to save you money

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