Supermarkets and high street retailers across England are now charging 5p for single-use plastic bags as part of a Government scheme to reduce litter and protect wildlife. Here's how to avoid being stung with the charge (and help the environment too).

Shops with 250 or more full-time equivalent employees have had to levy a 5p minimum charge per single-use plastic bag since Monday (5 Oct), while smaller retailers can choose to charge. Shoppers will also have to pay if single-use bags are used with their online shop.

The move, generally supported by a majority of MoneySavingExpert.com readers in a recent poll, is expected to cut the use of carrier bags in supermarkets by 80%, save £60 million in litter costs and generate £730 million for good causes. Retailers in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales already have to charge a minimum of 5p per bag.

But don't think the charge means you need to pay more for your supermarket shop. Here's how to avoid paying more - and even make a bit extra recycling unwanted bags.

1. Opt for 'no bags' if shopping online

Retailers have to charge for plastic bags with online deliveries and 'click and collect' orders. They're allowed to charge a standard amount per order for plastic bags, as long as they charge 5p or more per bag overall – for example, Asda, Sainsbury's, Tesco and Waitrose are charging a flat rate of 40p per delivery.

However all four of these retailers now also let you opt for bagless delivery. So choose 'no bags' and you won't have to pay anything at all.

And it's worth noting Morrisons will refund online shoppers' bag fees if they think they've been charged for too many bags.

Martin Lewis
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2. Make money returning unwanted plastic bags at 5p a pop

Online retailer Ocado has neatly managed to turn the 5p charge on its head, giving you an easy way to earn some extra pennies and help the environment too. It'll pay you 5p for each regular plastic bag you give back to the delivery driver - and crucially, it isn't just Ocado bags, it'll also accept other shops' bags.

There's a limit, so you're not going to make millions if you've got a plastic bag mountain at home, but Ocado says it'll take up to 99 bags per delivery, so you could make £4.95 each time. The bags you send back will be recycled.

Morrisons - whose online shopping service is handled by Ocado - is running a similar scheme. However it will only pay 5p for Morrisons online bags. You can give it bags from other retailers to be recycled, but you won't get any cash for these.

3. Trade your bags in for new ones free of charge at Sainsbury's

Sainsbury's says the bags it charges 5p for, which were previously single-use, have now been made thicker so should be reusable. Even better, it says that if these break it'll replace them free of charge. So you don't need to keep buying new ones - just swap them when you next shop.

4. Buy - or make - a 'bag for life'

Rather than shelling out 5p a time for flimsy single-use bags, consider buying a reusable 'bag for life'. These vary in cost but start from as little as 6p at Asda - typically they're replaced free of charge if damaged, meaning you can use them over and over again.

Alternatively, MoneySavingExpert.com forum user ampersand suggests making old jumpers, cardigans and shirts into "bags of character", while forumite DigForVictory has found a YouTube tutorial on folding bags so they fit neatly inside other bags or in pockets, meaning you've always got one on you.

Going to ANY supermarket? Bring your own bag or risk a price rise
A 5p charge for single-use plastic bags takes effect in England today

5. Know when you WON'T be charged

While most bags now incur a charge, in England you won't be charged for bags that aren't plastic, don't have handles, or which have been used.

You also won't be charged for a plastic bag if it's for any of the following items – but you will be charged if you add other items that aren't on the list below into the same bag.

  • Uncooked fish, meat and poultry.
  • Unwrapped food, such as chips, or food in containers likely to leak.
  • Loose seeds, bulbs and flowers.
  • Items such as potatoes with soil on them, plants and roots (including items such as ginger).
  • Prescription medicines.
  • Items bought while travelling, eg, at an airport or on a train.
  • Free promotional materials.
  • Services such as dry cleaning or shoe repairs.
  • Unwrapped blades.

Why has this change come into force?

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs estimates supermarkets gave out almost 140 single-use plastic bags per person in 2014, and on average each household has 40 bags stashed away.

Wales, which in 2011 became the first in the UK to adopt a charge, saw a reduction of 79% in plastic bags being handed out in the first three years, while Northern Ireland and Scotland have also seen reductions since they brought in charges in 2013 and 2014 respectively.

Where does the money go?

Once retailers have deducted "reasonable costs", they're expected to donate all proceeds from the charge to good causes. However the Treasury is also charging VAT on the bag charge, so will take a cut.

Additional reporting by Helen Knapman.

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