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Plastic bag tax plans illustrate complexity of recycling debate

In less than a fortnight, Londoners will decide whether they wish for a plastic bag levy or a complete ban in the capital. London councils have held a public consultation to decide on a range of options including whether nothing should be done at all or a plastic bag levy should be introduced. If successful London councils could propose a 10p levy on each plastic bag distributed in shops in the capital. If successful the proposal will go into the 10th London Local Authorities Bill, due to go before Parliament in November. The issue of a plastic bag levy in London has spilt politicians and members of the waste industry over whether the idea would work in the capital. Ireland introduced a 15 cent charge for plastic bags in 2002 and the success or failure of it has still to be assessed. Liberal Democrats and the Mayor of London both support plans for a plastic bag levy. Mayor of London Ken Livingstone said: I am in favour of having a levy on plastic bags which could lead to a huge reduction in the use of plastic bags, cutting back on waste and helping our efforts to tackle climate change. I have called for financial incentives to encourage people not to use plastic bags in my waste strategy for London. However, I do not have any powers to take forward such a proposal. Lib Dem Member of Scottish Parliament Mike Pringle tried to introduce a bill for a levy on bags in Scotland but failed to reach a consensus with the rest of Parliament and had to withdraw it. Pringle said: Introducing a plastic bag tax will raise awareness of the whole environmental situation. People will start thinking about recycling issues and the environment; it is not just about reducing plastic bag use. Irish introduction of plastic bags has been a huge success - there has been a huge reduction in the number of plastic bags used and Ireland is way ahead of the rest of Britain when it comes to environmental issues. Pringle has said that he will try to reintroduce the bill in Scotland by the end of 2008. He added: I think it would be successful in London, I congratulate the London councils for looking to the future and I urge them to go for it. They will find that the general public will be very supportive of them and when it works in London it will add more arrows to my bow to take it to Scotland. In a recent survey conducted by the British Market Research Bureau found that 61% of people are prepared to pay 5p for their plastic bags on shopping bags. Nearly two thirds of adults said they already re-used plastic bags and retailers have signed up to a voluntary code to reduce the overall impact of their carrier bags by 25% by the end of 2008. Carrier Bag Consortium (CBC), a trade organisation that deals with the manufacture and distribution of plastic bags, agreed with WRAP in saying that introducing a levy leads to more bags being used. Head of communications Peter Woodall said: In Ireland retailers switched from plastic bags to paper. The amount of energy used along the life cycle of a paper bag has far greater effect on the environment then if you use a plastic bag. Lets not forget that paper bags are useless when wet and in the UK it rains a lot. So retailers are also lining their paper bags with plastic. Plastic coating is also used on the outside of the bags. In Britain, over 13 billion bags are issued every year to shoppers, approximately 220 per person every year. Only one in 200 bags are estimated to be recycled. Experts have warned politicians to assess the situation carefully before rushing into a plastic bag levy in London. Industry sources say that Irelands levy on plastic bags led to more people buying black bin liners. Woodall said: In Ireland, when those free bags were taken away, sales of these went up by 300 to 500%. North London Recycling Forum manager Guy Mansfield-Williams said: We would support any well thought out measures to reduce the amount of plastic used, and ending up as waste. There is no silver bullet to reduce the use of plastic bags. Schemes that have been tried in other areas have had mixed results, with a reduction in carrier bags but a rise in the purchase of bin liners. The enormous range of different polymers used in bags and packaging makes plastic very difficult to recycle. If the packaging industry could agree on a single polymer for all packaging, recycling plastics might become as straightforward as it is for glass.

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