Small businesses will be exempt from government plans to introduce a 5p charge for single-use carrier bags from autumn 2015.
Deputy prime minister Nick Clegg announced the measure on Saturday, bringing England in line with the other home nations, which all have charges for plastic bags.
“Plastic carrier bags blight our towns and countryside,” said Clegg. “They take hundreds of years to degrade and can kill animals.
“This is not a new problem. We’ve waited too long for action. That’s why I am drawing a line under the issue now. The charge will be implemented sensibly – small businesses will be exempt.”
“Single-use carrier bags account for less that 1% of household waste in the UK, so it is important that we remain focussed on the wider issues of waste as well”
Businesses with fewer than 250 employees will not have to charge for carrier bags.
Although details of the scheme remain to be worked out, it is likely England will follow the Welsh model, whereby retailers give proceeds from bag charges to charity.
Defra said that similar schemes in Ireland, Wales and Switzerland had led to an 80% reduction in the number of carrier bags issued.
The Federation of Small Businesses welcomed the exemption for smaller retailers. “Introducing the charge across the board would have placed a significant administrative burden on the smallest of businesses and we therefore support the 250 employee threshold in England.
“Many small firms choose to put in place voluntary measures to limit the number of plastic bags they give out and we believe encouraging this kind of approach is the best way forward for small businesses.”
A spokeswoman for the British Retail Consortium said it would work with the government on any new legislation, but added the retail sector had already made advances in tackling the environmental impact and waste from carrier bags.
“Single-use carrier bags account for less that 1% of household waste in the UK, so it is important that we remain focussed on the wider issues of waste as well,” she said. “Any legislation should be proportionate and, as far as possible, consistent across the UK to avoid confusion for customers and businesses.”
Recent data published by Wrap revealed that carrier-bag usage in England rose 4.4% in 2012, but fell 76% in Wales, in the first full year since charging began there.
Pressure had been growing on the government to introduce charges for carrier bags after Scotland announced its intention to charge from October 2014 in June, leaving England the odd one out.
Environment minister Lord de Mauley said the government would also incentivise the use of biodegradable bags: “There are also plans to incentivise businesses for bringing biodegradable plastic bags to market in England. Provided the bags meet the required criteria, these could be exempt from a charge.”
M&S has seen an 81% reduction in carrier-bag usage since it began to charging 5p for bags in 2007.