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News Analysis: Will a carrier bag tax reduce landfill and would it be environmentally friendly?

Last week Scottish MSP Mike Pringle put forward a bill to introduce a 10p tax for plastic carrier bags.

The aim of Pringle's bill was to make members of the public think twice before taking the disposable bags from shops and thereby cut the amount of waste going to landfill.

If the Scottish Executive does pass the bill, its progress and results will be watched very closely by the governments in England and Wales, both of which have funded research into ways of getting shoppers to take fewer bags from the checkouts.

But will a levy on shopping bags really have a significant impact on the amount of waste going to landfill in Scotland and does the policy really benefit the environment?

Friends of the Earth Scotland head of research Dan Barlow supported Pringle's bill and said: "Scotland is struggling to deal with rising waste volumes and this Bill could help change our wasteful attitude to resource use.

"Every year in Scotland, nearly a billion carrier bags pollute our environment, threaten wildlife and get dumped in landfills. Single use carrier bags are symbolic of our wasteful attitude to resources.

"The Bill should encourage behaviour change towards more environmentally acceptable alternatives like re-use bags or bags for life."

Both Pringle and Barlow have used the example of Ireland, where a plastic bag levy was introduced in May 2002, to support their argument that taxing bags cuts waste.

Within three months of introducing the charge the Irish government reported that carrier bag use had dropped by 90%: just 23 million plastic bags were used during that period, roughly 277 million fewer than were consumed during the same period before the levy was introduced.

However, critics have argued that the damaging environmental effects of consumers' habits have merely been shifted elsewhere.

Sales of bin liners in Ireland have reportedly seen a 500% increase since the tax was introduced because they are now a cheaper way of disposing of rubbish than carrier bags.

Packaging and Industrial Films Association (PIFA) David Tyson said: "One plastic bag can carry up to 2,500 times its own weight whereas alternatives can weigh six times more and take much more room to store and use much more energy in transportation.

"In fact one retailer in one country where a plastic bag tax was introduced now has to transport four 40 foot containers of paper sacks (protected from moisture by plastic) where previously it shipped only 3 pallets of plastic carriers to do the same the job. "This unpredicted result of a misguided tax is doing far more environmental damage because it results in increased exhaust emissions, more congestion on the roads and much more waste going to landfill."

Whether post-taxation Ireland is environmentally better or worse off has yet to be proven, but the Scottish and Irish governments' actions do beg the question of whether it is right to target the plastic carrier bag in the first place.

Supporters of the tax say that disposable carrier bags are symbolic of our throwaway culture and by accounting 1% of the UK's municipal waste, represent significant tonnages going to landfill.

However, a Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) commissioned survey in 2000 showed that 80% of households reuse their carrier bags, making them the most reused form of retail packaging.

The 1% of landfill figure has also been disputed.

In May 2002 a plastic bag tax assessment by the treasury claimed carrier bags accounted for as l

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