False Bag Attack

FACT CHECK:   Is it illegal for stores to charge shoppers 5p for plastic bags?

Claim:   A 5p surcharge applied to plastic bags (effective 5 October 2015) is illegal.


Examples:     [Collected via Facebook, October 2015]

Origins:   Under a law that came into effect on 5 October 2015 retailers in England were required by law to apply a charge of 5p for all single-use plastic carrier bags (save for exemptions provided for specific items and some small businesses).

Relevant guidelines were issued by the Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA):

Implementation of the 5p bag law was chaotic by most accounts, and the British media reported that shoppers were primarily confused or angry about the inconvenience. Amid popular reactions to the new law was a 12 October 2015 Facebook post (reproduced above), which featured a photograph of a print missive claiming that the 5p bag surcharge was illegal and couldn’t properly be imposed. Under a (slightly obscured) header reading “Have Your Say,” a writing titled “Law broken on 5p bags” claimed:

Prime Minister David Cameron doesn’t know much about the law of the land introduced this week regarding charging 5p for carrier bags. Shops cannot charge a customer for a carrier bag if it has the shop name on it. This is because the customer carrying the bag around with them is, in essence, advertising the shop. To bring a change of law the government must mention the charge three times in the House of Lords. Then MPs have to agree and after that, the change of law to charge 5p for every carrier bag will be heard in the Queen’s speech at the opening of Parliament. David Cameron and his Tory party have not only changed the law on carrier bags but they have broken the law. And by doing so the British public should stand up and make the government accountable to us. We are, after all, the voters who pay their wages…

The letter continued, but the remainder of its content wasn’t captured in the photo. That image appeared on various forums across the web, but no source, date, or publication of origin was ever included (and all iterations were identical to the Facebook post’s version). The first point argued by the letter were that the 5p bag law was illegal if the carrier in question was printed with a store’s logo or name, as customers were conscripted to advertise for the store by merit of carrying the bags. While that objection was creative, we were unable to locate any information indicating that the 5p bag law unduly imposed upon consumers in such a fashion. No part of the law prevented shoppers from bringing unlabeled bags with them or enforced a condition by which consumers were obliged to carry branded plastic bags (and advertise for any retailers). In short, shoppers were free to avoid the charge by supplying their own bags or forgoing a bag altogether; no portion of the law required anyone to carry a bag labeled “Tesco” or “Waitrose.” Related rumors claimed trolley thefts were up among consumers who resented the law:

In its second portion the letter writer objected to the 5p bag surcharge on procedural grounds, claiming that the law wasn’t implemented through proper channels (adding that the government itself had “broken the law” in imposing it). However, no citations for the claim were provided. Given the massive media scrutiny to which the 5p bag law has been subject, it’s likely such an objection would have been raised by a major media outlet during their ongoing coverage of the new regulation. But despite the story’s popularity, the sole claim we could locate suggesting the law was improperly imposed was in a single letter to the editor.

Moreover, similar laws were put into effect in Wales in 2011 and Scotland in 2014. Neither of those laws was challenged in the manner described in the letter, nor deemed an unreasonable or illegal burden on shoppers.

The rumor claiming the 5p bag law was illegal was widely reposted on social media, but no evidence suggested its assertions were supported. The format in which it was presented (a photograph of something in print) may have bolstered its authority, and letters to the editor are sometimes mistaken for articles in print when shared to social media in that fashion. But given widespread objection to the new law and its popularity in media, it remained highly unlikely that such a claim would go unreported in comprehensive coverage if its assertions were in any way legally plausible.

Variations:   A related rumor claimed a sign spotted in supermarket Asda after the 5p bag law went into effect informed shoppers the chain “politely insist[ed]” customers “using bags from other shops … leave the store.”

Commenters noted the sign was an obvious fabrication — the slogan at the bottom (“Every Little Helps”) was associated with Tesco, not Asda. Asda advised customers on 12 October 2015 that the circulating image wasn’t legitimate:

Last updated:    16 October 2015

First published:    13 October 2015