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Is incentivising biodegradable bag use a good idea?

The Government says it wants to incentivise the use of biodegradable carrier bags. Have they thought this through? I suspect not.

There are essentially four outcomes from a large-scale adoption of these bags. In order of likelihood:

  • They will end up in landfill where they will break down to produce methane;
  • They will get mixed with other plastic bags for recycling causing higher costs and maybe serious technical problems for reprocessors;
  • Consumers will be confused and include standard bags in green waste collections, where they will impose costs on reprocessors; or
  • They will be collected separately from other plastics and composted.

Only the last, and least likely, of these is helpful.

There is another downside too. The whole point of the proposed charge for carrier bags is to change public behaviour to encourage maximum reuse of bags. Having a “good” bag option, which will not carry the charge, will substantially undermine the message of the charge and put pressure on supermarkets to provide biodegradable bags making the problems more difficult to manage.

It’s a pity if the minister for resource management, Lord De Mauley, hasn’t got the point about the circular economy. If there isn’t a workable cycle, material put in at one end will come out as waste and could easily upset existing cycles for green waste and plastic film.

A final thought: I hope the minister understands the difference between biodegradable and oxydegradable. If he wants to exempt oxydegradable bags as well we have a serious problem.

Phillip Ward, former director at WRAP

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