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A single-use bag tax can deliver significant benefits

One of the benefits of devolution in the UK is that new approaches to problem solving can be piloted.  We can discover what actually happens rather than make decisions on the basis of assumptions.

Take plastic bags. Over six billion single-use plastic carrier bags are reported to be distributed by UK retailers each year and there are signs the number may be rising despite a serious drive to reduce it which began in 2008.  

 All councils take waste minimisation very seriously. Most engage with retailers to try to reduce usage. Most use their newsletters to explain the need to use fewer bags. Some have issued free jute bags. Many engage with young people as part of their Enviroschools programmes to explain the damage plastic bags can do.  Yet the impact is not as great as people had hoped.

Plastic bags do not themselves make up a significant element of the tonnage that goes to landfill but it can take a thousand years for a plastic bag to rot away.  The simplest solution seems to be a bag levy if it can be demonstrated that it will significantly reduce the numbers of bags being used.

Wales introduced a 5p tax levy in October last year. Sainsbury’s in Wales has reported a 90% drop in demand. Overall, across Wales, it looks as though the reduction may end up being around 70%. We will see when official figures come out shortly.

Elsewhere in the UK, Northern Ireland is introducing a 5p levy from April 2013 rising to 10p from 2014 for single-use bags. Scotland is going to issue a consultation document soon about possible charging.

Outside the UK, Italy recently banned all non-biodegradable bags and Los Angeles has just banned all single-use plastic grocery bags. Ireland has had a tax in place for several years and demand has been significantly reduced.

So where is England in all of this?

There have been some significant reductions without compulsory measures. Marks and Spencer introduced a 5p charge on plastic bags in their food departments and saw a drop of 81% in the number used which went down from 464 million to 77 million. That’s a very significant achievement.

It seems that there has been some growth in black plastic waste bags that people use instead for their residual waste but it seems unlikely that this would get anywhere near the total issued free by retailers.

So, the evidence does seem to suggest that a small tax can produce a major benefit in reducing unnecessary consumption of plastic bags.

Council officers in Newcastle tell me that they estimate some 29 million plastic bags are issued each year in Newcastle; that’s 80,000 each shopping day. At 5p each, even at 30% of current distribution rates, that could raise substantial sums for environmental charities. Since shoppers would be volunteering to support those charities, it seems a solution that would be workable.

It is claimed that voluntary schemes have reduced single-use bags by about 40% across the UK in recent years. In addition, the use of virgin plastic has reduced by some 60% as more recycled plastic is used. This may be true but the fact remains that we consume far too many plastic bags unnecessarily.

We will learn soon of the outcome of the leadership shown by Wales on this issue. Let us hope that positive action will be taken in England to bring us into line with best practice.

Lord Shipley, government adviser on cities

  • This article first appeared in our sister title LGC

Readers' comments (1)

  • Sir,

    I note with a degree of frustration your article extolling a tax on single-use bags. I remain wholly unconvinced that they are a worthy target of such dedicated treatment. You accept that they do not represent a significant fraction of our waste stream (a big understatement – they are positively insignificant), and the latest report from Keep Britain Tidy (1) ranks them way down the list of most frequently littered items (behind such things as smokers materials, confectionery wrappers and drinks packaging), so this is not a valid driver, either.

    Although I think the above irrefutable, my frustration is not about whether or not the humble carrier bag deserves such attention. My main point is that I’ve yet to be convinced that a carrier bag tax is actually good for the environment. Yes, imposing the tax causes folk to use fewer single-use bags, but that’s not because they’re not shopping – what are they using instead? Last year’s study for the Environment Agency (2) concluded that cotton bags for life need to used at least 131 times to outperform (on the measure of climate change) single-use bags, and that assumes the latter aren’t reused as bin liners, in which case the numbers get even bigger. I’m sure everyone is getting better at reusing bags – but are we collectively good enough yet to be having a net positive effect on the environment?

    Single-use bags may be in decline, but sales of bags for life, cotton bags and indeed bin liners are surely increasing, together (I presume) with supermarket profits on those items. The article concludes that taxing plastic bags leads to the use of fewer bags and that is good for the environment. Perhaps I might suggest, using the same logic, that fuel taxes should be increased? Now there’s something the Government might like to try...

    Simon Gandy
    Principal Consultant
    AEA Technology Waste Management and Resource Efficiency Team

    (1) The State of England’s Local Environment, Keep Britain Tidy, March 2012
    (2) Life cycle assessment of supermarket carrier bags: a review of the bags available in 2006, Report: SC030148, The Environment Agency, February 2011

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