Northern Ireland retailers are now legally obliged to charge customers for carrier bags as the shopping bag levy comes into effect today.
In an effort to reduce the 250 million carrier bags that are handed out every year in Northern Ireland, all retailers are required to charge customers a minimum of 5p per bag.
Paper bags are also subject to the levy. Smaller bags and bags that contain hot food and drink are exempt from the levy, as well as bags used to contain uncooked meat, poultry or fish, or loose vegetables.
The money raised by the levy is being paid to the Northern Ireland Department of Environment and will be used to fund environmental programmes and activities. Failure to charge the levy, pay proceeds collected to the Department of Environment or keep records of bag levies charged could lead to a fine of up to £20,000. The carrier bag charge will be policed by the Department and has the power to make test purchases, enter any business premises and inspect levy records.
Northern Ireland Independent Retailer Trade Association (NIIRTA) chief executive Glyn Roberts warned that the high fines and extra administration will hamper businesses.
“NIIRTA shares the objective of reducing the amount of carrier bags in circulation and that end up in landfill sites,” he said. “We believe that sensible changes to the scheme, such as capping it at 5p, letting retailers distribute the levy proceeds to local charities as is the case in Wales and dropping some of the ridiculously high fines should be made.
“The collecting and administration of the levy may pose a real burden on our members and we will be closely monitoring this over the next few months.”
Northern Ireland Retail Consortium director Aodhán Connolly warned of initial confusion while shoppers got used to it. “Our members have devoted substantial resources to staff training and other preparations and they’re confident they’re ready for this new regime,” he said. “Even so, there is still the possibility of frontline staff in shops, small and large, facing conflict and confusion from customers who haven’t been well enough informed. I hope the Department of Environment and the public will be patient while we all get used to this new system.”
The Department of Environment has published a video specifically for retailers, detailing which types of bags should be charged for and which are exempt from the levy.