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Plastic carrier bags: are they a scourge or just a scapegoat?

By Maggie Thurgood

Recent media coverage of comments and campaigns against plastic carrier bags has been extensive. Ireland has tried it, Scotland is considering it, Wales is researching it and some fear it can only be a matter of time for England. So what is so evil about the plastic bag?

In the UK we generate around 30 million tonnes of municipal rubbish a year. Around 10% of that is plastic including empty milk bottles, black rubbish sacks, sticky wrapping, old toys, unwanted televisions, CD cases, toothpaste tubes ... and carrier bags.

The carrier bag amounts to a maximum of 1% of our rubbish and it is the only source of waste plastic that is typically reused in the home; Government research shows that more than 80% of households reuse their carrier bags.

So why on earth are we focusing so much of our ire on the dratted carrier bag? Could it possibly be because hating carrier bags allows us to be smug and green without actually changing our consumption habits?

According to the World Watch Institute in the US, the light weight, low cost, and water resistance of carrier bags makes them so convenient for carrying groceries, clothing and other routine purchases that its hard to imagine life without them. World Watch also says that compared with paper bags, producing plastic ones uses less energy and water and generates less air pollution and solid waste.

Advocates of a bag tax will tell you that the bag symbolises our throw-away society. But so do mobile phones, trainers with flashing lights in the heel, four-wheel drive vehicles and holidays abroad. Hands up who has called for more tax on those?

Those same supporters of a bag tax cite the Irish tax which, urban legend has it, has resulted in a 90%-plus reduction in the use of thin plastic carrier bags. Less mention is made of the increased use of thicker bag-for-life carriers, which many people treat as single use, or of paper bags doubled up for strength.

One supermarket says it now needs three times more lorries to deliver bags to its Irish branches. And there has been a 500% increase in the sale of bin liners.

The Welsh Assembly is funding a trial to reduce the use of thin, single-use carrier bags to the tune of £500,000. Surely there are better ways to spend such sums?

If putting a tax on plastic carrier bags was genuinely going to help the environment, I would be all for it. If it could be shown to reduce litter or save scarce resources, I would support it. But as far as I can see, all it does is shift the focus. Antisocial people who drop litter will continue to do so, whether it is a carrier bag, a fast food wrapper or even a car dumped in a lay-by.

And human beings are imperfect however much we mean to take our reusable bags to the supermarket, there will be times when we forget. Will paying an extra few pence on a typical weekly grocery bill of £50 or more really deter us from having that bag?

Recent research from the Prudential showed that we each waste £425 of food in a year. That wastes not only the limp lettuce and the stale bread, but also the energy and fertilisers that went into growing the crops, the energy needed to process, transport and store them, and the materials needed to package them. Whats more, that bread and lettuce give off greenhouses gases in landfill sites, whereas plastic carrier bags do not rot. This fact is often criticised as a negative aspect of plastic bags, but surely if the big problem facing us is climate change, things that dont rot have the edge.

We seem to be very mixed up, lurching from one knee-jerk reaction to the next, with no scientific basis and no real ownership of the waste problem.

Twenty years ago, as editor of a waste management magazine, I feared that putting out newspapers for recycling was conferring absolution on people, allowing them to go on buying more stuff and generating more waste. I do my bit, I recycle was the attitude.

Recycling is now rightly mainstream. Many more people have

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