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Why England has begun charging for plastic shopping bags

Shoppers in England will be charged for every plastic bag they use in a bid to halt the damage being caused to the planet.

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Starting this fall, shoppers across England will have to pay 5 pence (0.1 cents) for a plastic bag.

Mike Blake/Reuters

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Starting this week, the British government introduced a 5-pence charge for plastic bags.

England imposed the charge, which started on Monday, as a way to reduce litter and save wildlife.

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Britain’s Department for Environment, Food, & Rural Affairs estimated that in 2013, supermarkets gave out over 8 billion single-use carrier bags across the UK – nearly 130 bags per person.

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Many of these bags end up as litter. And they take up space in landfills – they are a great environmental nuisance and take hundreds of years to degrade and can kill animals, according to Nick Clegg, who was deputy prime minister at the time the charge was announced.

Following the implementation of the new scheme people took to social media to praise or joke about it.

The new rules apply to retailers with 250 or more employees, while smaller businesses can charge for bags if they wish, according to the BBC.

As a result of the charge, the government expects an 80 percent reduction in single-carrier-bag use in supermarkets. Will it really make a difference? If shoppers in England react the way shoppers in other countries have, it should. 

In Wales the 5-pence charge on plastic bags introduced four years ago helped reduce their use by more than 70 percent and generated millions for charity, a recent review of the policy by the Welsh government indicates.

In 1994, Denmark introduced a tax on plastic and paper bags for retailers. According to European Union data, the introduction of the tax halved the consumption from around 800 million bags to 400 million bags, which amounts to around 80 bags per person annually.

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In 2008, Rwanda went a step futher, banning plastic bags, a feat that no other African country has accomplished.

In the United States, California, Massachusetts, and Washington, have debated statewide bans for years. In 2014, California banned single-use plastic bags. The law was to take effect in July, but after lobbying by opponents of the bill, California voters will decide whether to repeal the ban or not in a referendum planned for November 2016.

The money raised by retailers from the new English levy will be given to the Treasury as a Value Added Tax (VAT) and government predicted an income of £19 million ($29 million) a year from the tax. Stores will be allowed to keep the rest of the money, however, some have said they will donate that money to charities, according to the Independent.