SPICe FAQ – Paper Bag Charges

Reading Time: 3 minutes

In the last few weeks we have received a number of enquiries from constituency offices across Scotland asking whether paper bags are exempt from the 5p bag charge.

The Legislation

The Scottish Parliament passed legislation, which came into force on 20 October 2014, which requires all retailers to charge a minimum of 5p for each new single-use carrier bag. The charge applies to all bags including paper and those made from some plant-based materials as well as plastic.

The regulations are set out in this Scottish Statutory Instrument: The Single Use Carrier Bags Charge (Scotland) Regulations 2014


The regulations specify a number of exemptions where there is no requirement to charge for bags (whether plastic or paper).

These include:

Bags of any size used solely to contain exempted items listed in the Regulations:

  • Unpackaged food for human or animal consumption, such as loose fruit and vegetables, bakery items, pick and mix sweets and dry animal food.
  • Unpackaged loose seeds, bulbs, corms or rhizomes, such as grass seeds, daffodil bulbs or root ginger.
  • Any unpackaged axe, knife, knife blade or razor blades, such as a kitchen knife which is mounted on cardboard but not then enclosed in wrapping.
  • Unpackaged goods contaminated by soil, such as soil, compost, potted plants, fishing bait and wormery worms.
  • Certain medicinal products, such as fulfilling prescription requests and pharmacy medication which can only be dispensed by a qualified pharmacist.

These exemptions are only valid where the bag provided is used solely to contain one or more of these listed items.

Zero Waste Scotland

Zero Waste Scotland states that the aim of the legislation is to encourage bag re-use and reduce the visible impact of litter.

“All bags, including those made of paper and other materials have a negative impact if they are dropped as litter. Additionally, all bags have an impact on the environment through the materials they use, their manufacture, distribution and treatment once they are no longer used. It’s important that the charge applies to all types of bag in order to ensure that its net impact is not to increase the environmental burden. It’s vital that people re-use bags as many times as is practical, in order to keep this to a minimum.”


Detailed guidance on the Scottish regulations is available here on the Zero Waste Scotland website: http://www.zerowastescotland.org.uk/litter-flytipping/carrier-bags

Resources for retailers: http://www.zerowastescotland.org.uk/litter-flytipping/bag-charge-resources-for-retailers

Carrier bag charge guidance: http://www.zerowastescotland.org.uk/litter-flytipping/carrier-bag-charge-guidance

Impact of the Legislation

The Scottish Government reported in 2015 that data from major grocery retailers indicated a reduction in bag use of around 80 per cent– equivalent to at least 650 million fewer bags being handed out annually compared to ‘business as usual’ in previous years – with funds of around £6.7 million being donated to good causes as a result of the charge: https://beta.gov.scot/news/bags-of-success/

Zero Waste Scotland produced a study one year on from the bag charge being introduced which also reported a reduction in single use bags in the grocery sector of around 80%. The full report if available on their website: https://www.zerowastescotland.org.uk/sites/default/files/SUCB%20Charge%20One%20Year%20On%20Report.pdf

Recent Developments

Parliamentary questions and motions this session have focused more on what is being done to reduce litter and encourage retailers to use less packaging or more biodegradable packaging


Question S5W-10035: Clare Haughey, Rutherglen, Scottish National Party, Date Lodged: 29/06/2017

To ask the Scottish Government how it is encouraging (a) retailers and (b) food and drink producers to use biodegradable packaging.

Answered by Roseanna Cunningham (14/07/2017):  

The Scottish Government’s vision is for a circular economy in which materials are kept in high value use for as long as possible, though reuse and recycling.

While biodegradable packaging can help to reduce litter through the gradual degradation of littered items, the Scottish Government’s focus is on reducing the amount of packaging used where practical, and ensuring that any material that does arise is recycled and contains as much recycled content as possible. Mechanisms such as the Waste (Scotland) Regulations 2012 make stipulations about the separate presentation and collection of recyclables, influencing the producer responsibility system for packaging to keep recycling targets as high as possible. The Scottish Government also supports the Courtauld Commitment with grocery retailers, industry and the hospitality sector to reduce the environmental impact of their activity.

The Scottish Government also has a range of work to tackle the issue of littering. This focuses on preventing littering in the first place, through actions such as increasing the penalties for litter and flytipping; introducing the single use carrier bag charge; and the introduction of a National Litter Strategy: http://www.gov.scot/Resource/0045/00452542.pdf.

Gwynneth Cowley, SPICe Enquiries Manager