The Single Use Carrier Bags (Scotland) Amendment Regulations 2021: business and regulatory impact assessment

Final Business and Regulatory Impact Assessment (BRIA) for proposed changes to the Single Use Carrier Bags (Scotland) Regulations 2021.

2.0 Purpose and Intended Effect

2.1 Background

2. Single-use carrier bags are a symbol of the throw-away culture and are associated with significant carbon and material impacts. They are also a highly visible and damaging component of litter. Through improper disposal or by being blown from bins and landfill due to their light weight and mobility, single-use carrier bags often end up in Scotland’s rivers and lochs where they can be particularly damaging, with a disproportionate impact on marine wildlife.[1] 

3. The Single Use Carrier Bags (Scotland) Regulations require all retailers (food and non-food) to charge a minimum of 5p for each new single-use carrier bag (SUCB).[2] The charge was introduced in 2014, is levied at the point of sale and applies to SUCBs made from paper, plastic and some plant-based materials. The aim was to encourage behaviour change in terms of bag re-use and to reduce the visible impact of litter.

4. Before 2014, roughly 800 million SUCBs were issued by major Scottish grocery retailers each year, with numbers increasing annually. A Post-Implementation Review in October 2015 indicated that 650 million fewer SUCBs were issued by 7 major retailers in the year after the introduction of the charge.[3] This is roughly equivalent to an 80% reduction. For the non-grocery sector, estimates of bag use reduction at 5 retailers interviewed ranged from 0% to 90%. 

5. In 2019, the Scottish Retail Consortium reported that around £2.5 million was raised for good causes by its members through revenues from the sale of single-use carrier bags.[4] The Marine Conservation Society noted in 2016 that the number of plastic carrier bags found on Scotland’s beaches had dropped two years in a row following the introduction of the 5p charge in 2014. Between 2015 and 2016 a 40% reduction was recorded[5], and a further 42% between 2018-19 (from 6.4 to 3.7 bags per 100m of beach)[6]

6. The significant potential of charging for SUCBs is also demonstrated on a UK-wide level. Data published by WRAP in 2013 suggest that between 2011-2012 every country within the UK, apart from Wales which had commenced charging for SUCBs in 2011, recorded an increase of between 1.1% - 4.4% in the number of SUCBs issued.[7] After the introduction of a 5p charge, the main retailers in England recorded a 95% reduction in the number of bags issued in 2020 compared to 2014, from 7.6 billion to 0.55 billion units.[8] A 2019 review of plastic SUCBs issued in Wales demonstrated a 73% reduction between 2011 and 2018.[9] There was an estimated 71.8% reduction in Northern Ireland in the first year after the introduction of the charge.[10] 

7. It is likely that not all of the reduction in SUCB use stems from the minimum 5p charge, but that additional voluntary measures have been taken by many retailers. For example, desk-based research indicates that 9 major supermarkets in the UK, which together make up more than 90% of the industry by market share, have stopped issuing SUCBs and have instead switched to Bags For Life (BfLs). Evidence from England also suggests that, without the decision by one major retailer to stop issuing SUCBs, the number of units sold would actually have increased between 2017 and 2018.[11] This may be an indication that the SUCB charge may lose effectiveness over time, an effect which was also recorded in the Republic of Ireland, where the charge had a significant positive impact for 5 years, after which the charge had to be increased from €0.15 (£0.09[12]) to €0.22 (£0.15[13]) in 2007. 

8. While large retailers may be taking voluntary measures above the legally required 5p charge, incentives for smaller retailers for taking further action may be lower in terms of reputational benefits. For example, the Welsh Post-Implementation Review shows that from 2015 to 2016, the number of SUCBs distributed by SMEs increased from 9.9 million to 10.2 million.[14]   

9. The substitution of SUCBs with BfLs suggests that some of the initial benefits of the reduction in the number of SUCBs is offset by the increased use of substitute bags, including Bags for Life (BfLs) and smaller bin bags. Despite this, the Scottish Post-Implementation Review found that, annual savings of 4,349 tonnes of plastic and 2,692 tonnes of carbon were achieved in the year following the introduction of the charge. 

10. However, a report published by EIA and Greenpeace UK raises concerns around the impact of the SUCB charge as it notes that BfL sales are now soaring as they are used by many customers as a single-use option.[15] This substitution effect has implications for the carbon impact of the policy. Evidence from England presents mixed impacts of the SUCB charge, which was introduced in 2015, on the sale of BfLs. While reporting on BfL sales is voluntary, some major retailers have consistently done so over the years and while some have indicated an increase in the number of BfLs between 2015 and 2020, others have reported a decrease over the same time period.[16] 

11. It can be concluded that the minimum 5p SUCB charge, combined with voluntary SUCB price increases and a switch to BfLs by individual retailers, has had a significant effect on reducing SUCB use. This had a very positive impact on SUCB litter, the reduction in which was one of the primary policy objectives for the 2014 regulations. However, fresh impetus is required to maintain the reductions in SUCB use that have already been achieved, and to further incentivise retailers to move away from SUCBs to more sustainable alternatives. The impact on the use of BfLs also needs to be considered.

2.2 Objective and rationale 

12. The proposal to revise the SUCB (Scotland) Regulations 2014 forms part of the Scottish Government’s wider ambition to develop a more circular economy, which aims to reduce the carbon footprint of the products and materials that we consume in Scotland and maximise resources to benefit the economy and the environment. This will help to address a growing global concern about the volume and impact of plastic pollution and litter, particularly in marine landscapes.

13. It would also ensure alignment with the recently-announced plan to increase the SUCB charge to 10p in England.[17]

14. Amending the Single Use Carrier Bags (Scotland) Regulations to increase the minimum carrier bag charge from 5p to 10p aims to:

  • Ensure the reduction in SUCB use to date is maintained and further reductions are achieved 
  • Support an additional reduction in littering behavior
  • Increase materials and carbon savings
  • Reduce waste sent to landfill and associated costs of waste treatment

15. The circular economy contributes directly to the Environment and Economy outcomes under the National Performance Framework.[18] This policy is therefore aimed at directly contributing to the following National Indicators:[19] 

  • Carbon footprint 
  • Natural capital
  • Greenhouse gas emissions 
  • Waste generated 
  • Clean seas
  • Scotland’s reputation
  • Perception of local area
  • Condition of protected nature sites

16. By decreasing the country’s carbon footprint, the policy is expected to contribute to objectives set out in the Climate Change (Emissions Reduction Targets) (Scotland) Act 2019.20  The Act scales up the ambition of our targets, enshrining in law a commitment to reduce emissions by 75% by 2030 and reach net-zero by 2045. 

17. Climate Change Plans present the proposals and policies for meeting these annual targets.  Scotland’s Climate Change Plan: Third Report on Proposals and Policies 2018-2032 (RPP3)[21] was published in February 2018. An update to the Climate Change Plan was published on 16 December 2020[22], reflecting our updated targets. The increase of the SUCB charge will contribute directly to the following aims set out in the RPP3: 

  • establish a more circular economy
  • reduce all waste sent to landfill to 5% by 2025 

18. In 2015, the Scottish Government signed up to support the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.[23,24] The ambition behind the goals is to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all as part of a new sustainable development agenda. The proposed policy is expected to have a positive impact on a number of these goals, most explicitly Goals 12, 13, 14 and 15:

  • Responsible Consumption and Production
  • Climate Action
  • Life Below Water
  • Life on Land

19. Finally, increasing the minimum SUCB charge is expected to contribute to the Green Recovery Plan objectives set out in Protecting Scotland, renewing Scotland: The government’s programme for Scotland 2020-21, which states: “We will ensure our rural economy and Scotland’s rich natural resources and biodiversity are central to our economic, environmental, and social wellbeing.”[25]



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