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Feature: Plastic bags: a taxing issue

Plastic bags: they’re everywhere and very much ingrained in our everyday lives. But do we give out and take too many? And are they a source of waste we could easily curb? It’s a hotly debated topic that everyone has an opinion on.

Business support officer Davina Robinson even wove a mat out of waste plastic bags into an image of pop star Madonna – the iconic material girl. She sent it to the council as part of her comment on its waste strategy review, where she suggested extending kerbside collections to include plastic.

Last month the Scottish Parliament’s environment and rural development committee asked for more information before reaching a decision on the proposed bill of introducing a plastic bag tax. MSP Mike Pringle, who put forward the bill, and Ross Finnie, minister for environment and rural development, now have until the end of August to gather the extra data. The stage one debate on the topic is then expected to take place around October.

Pringle’s proposal is for retailers and other businesses to charge customers a levy, suggested at 10p, for each plastic bag provided. This would be collected by local authorities and spent on environmental projects. The aim is to encourage people to cut the number of bags used, reduce waste going to landfill, encourage re-use and recycling, and reduce the amount of litter created by plastic bags.

Pringle says a similar tax introduced in the Republic of Ireland in 2002 has been a success – reducing litter and pollution. The Irish government said in the first three months of the ‘plastax’, about 277 million fewer bags were used than normal and 3.5 million (£2.3m) in extra revenue was raised for environmental projects.

But a study ordered by the Scottish Executive into the proposal has suggested it may not be as simple a solution as it seems. It raised concerns about the true environmental benefit of the levy because it excludes paper bags. It suggested that greater environmental benefit would be achieved if paper bags were included, as the existing proposal would increase the use of paper bags and create more paper bag waste.

It found that introducing a levy on plastic bags only would actually increase waste by 5,409 tonnes a year, whereas a levy including paper bags would reduce it by about 4,993 tonnes a year.

The study also questioned the amount of money generated by the tax, as set-up and administration costs are estimated to be about £3.5m a year. This raises concerns about smaller authorities, which would generate less revenue without a proportionate cut in administration costs.

The Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) has also raised concerns that the proposed bill may not achieve its stated objectives and have unintended consequences.

WRAP says that after the levy, Ireland saw an increased use of paper bags – which are heavier, often weaker and less reusable. They add weight to waste for disposal and had an impact on achieving EU landfill directive targets. In addition, WRAP says the Irish tax led to a significant increase in bin liner sales, therefore questioning the real reduction in plastic waste that would be achieved. It suggested a lifecycle and cost benefit analysis before the implementation of a levy, and prefers a tax on all disposable bags rather than
just plastic.

WRAP also suggested further research into alternative methods of achieving the same objec

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