The single use carrier bag levy is already operating in Scotland and Wales, and funds from the charge are helping young Welsh farmers. It comes into force in England this October and there are ways the fresh produce industry can learn to benefit both itself and society at large
According to government sources, when Wales introduced the single use carrier bag levy in 2011 not only did usage drop by 90% within the year, but the money from the 5p charge benefited Welsh communities and charities too.
The Glamorgan Federation of Young Farmers Club is just one of the organisations to receive money from supermarket funds accrued from the charges; accepting a £17,000 donation from Waitrose to help inspire the next generation of farmers.
Scotland has also reported a significant decrease in carrier bag usage, and once again charities and local enterprises have shared the cash generated by the levy. One such organisation is the Energy Technology Centre in East Kilbride, which provides alternative power sources for many sectors, including horticulture.
This autumn, the levy will be introduced in England; offering the opportunity for enterprises and organisations across the country to apply for funding once supermarkets have collected sufficient amounts to make awards.
Each retailer has different ways of distributing the cash, with Sainsbury’s operating rounds of funding, Asda a rolling programme of grants, and the Co-operative group yet to announce how it will award funds.
A question of packaging
However, the levy doesn’t just present the opportunity for small and medium-sized enterprises concerned with food, farming, and energy use to apply for grants to assist with their work. It also helps to provide research on consumer attitudes towards packaging in general, from which John Pal, senior lecturer in retailing at Manchester Business School, says producers can get direct benefit.
“Customers want smaller pack sizes, and a move away from the mirage of the multi-buy deal,” he explains.
This certainly appears to be the case. In 2013 the charity WRAP launched a survey into short shelf-life/perishable food packaging (in relation to how much food is wasted). The report showed that 81% of consumers felt packaging was an environmental problem, while 57% said it was wasteful.
Last year WRAP commissioned consumer research on behalf of Defra into attitudes towards plastic bags. It revealed that almost double the amount of respondents cited environmental reasons (31%) ahead of financial ones (15%) for refusing to pick up single use carrier bags at the till.
As consumers demonstrate strong environmental concerns over the use of plastic, the fresh produce industry is delivered opportunities to tackle issues such as multi-buy promotions, and reduce costs by putting the case forward for removing unnecessary packaging such as plastic bags for bananas.
Already Waitrose has demonstrated its commitment to trimming packaging and costs; aware that it’s not just within the interests of the environment, and customers, but also producers. “One such initiative is the reduction of the thickness for all prepared salad and leaf plastic bags, which has been achieved without lowering the quality or shortening the life of the product,” says a Waitrose spokesman.
“This enabled a 14.3% reduction in the weight of packaging used, as well as reducing the misting inside the bags and improving the quality of the seal.”
And it is not just the more affluent consumer that is showing concern for the overuse of plastics, as Amy Anslow, co-owner of the independent Brighton supermarkets HiSbe explains. Anslow says the central location of her store on York Place attracts a broad range of customers with different incomes, but the majority welcome less packaging.
“A lot of our vegetables and fruit are organic and local, from Sussex and Kent – we sell it loose, and customers are very happy with that,” she notes. “It fits in with our and our customer’s values to reduce waste, and to have as little impact on the environment as possible.”
Anslow says the supermarket has been trialling different types of environmentally-friendly grocery bags, including biodegradable and paper. The latest is a multi-use carrier called Bag Re-born.
Bag Re-born, a design by Brighton-based teacher Richard Simmonite, can be used to hold produce or groceries. Then by peeling away a couple of stickers, it folds out into a 60-litre refuse or recycling sack.
Simmonite’s design helps to alleviate one of the side concerns that has arisen with the carrier bag levy. Although many customers have stopped picking up single use carrier bags, they are collecting more bags for life – and forgetting to take them on repeat shopping trips.
Although consumer response to the levy has been positive on the whole in Wales and Scotland, having the option to purchase a bag for life that also has a dual purpose would potentially help to prevent any of the negative customer behaviour reported at some supermarkets.
For example, Asda in Dundee found shoppers were not only walking off with wire baskets, but also using the thin plastic bags in the fresh produce aisle to carry regular groceries rather than pay for bags.
With six months to go until the levy is introduced in England, all of the major supermarkets have been preparing their staff for the changes, with Tesco saying it has been rolling out appropriate training for staff, as well as using learnings from its Welsh and Scottish stores.
"We have been trying for some time to help customers decrease their bag use,” comments a Tesco spokesman.
"We will of course still offer bags for life in our stores after the charge is introduced and we are looking at what our customers will find most useful."
With producers constantly looking to trim costs to offer the competitive prices supermarkets want, and stores open to any suggestions that help to keep the customer on their side, the carrier bag levy is a great example of where research can help to achieve both.