This blog post is based on an essay I wrote for my course. I investigated whether a plastic bag tax should be introduced in major supermarkets in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland; currently Wales and Ireland have already implemented a plastic bag tax. In this post, ‘plastic bags’ refers to those that are currently free and for single-use, i.e. those found at supermarket tills.
Single, free use plastic bags have been described as a symbol of the wasteful and throwaway culture that characterises modern day Britain. Plastic bags contribute to a diverse range of environmental problems such as:
- Plastic bags can take up to 1000 years to degrade
- Plastic bags are a blight on the landscape (they’re always entangling themselves in tree branches and brambles)
- Plastic bags are rarely recycled since they can only be recycled at special facilities in the UK. Most plastic bags end up in the landfill
- Plastic bags can contaminate recycling centres if they are erroneously placed in the recycling bin, reducing profits since the quality of output is reduced
- Plastic bags are lightweight and can be carried away by the wind from landfill sites even if they are disposed of in the rubbish (I have visited a landfill site and I was horrified by the sheer number of plastic bags that had entangled themselves in trees and bushes on site. The tour guide informed us that workers frequently had to collect these bags from the site to take them back to lanfill.)
- Plastic bags can clog storm drains, which can result in floods (there is also a financial cost involved to remove them)
- Plastic bags can be a hazard to wildlife e.g. marine wildlife who ingest or become entangled in plastic bags, resulting in death or injury e.g. marine turtles
- The Environment Agency found that the greenhouse gas emissions associated with the entire life cycle of one plastic bag were 1.58 kilograms CO2 equivalent; this estimate includes the manufacture, transport and disposal of 1 plastic bag in landfill. This means that 1 plastic bag emits 1.58 kilograms of carbon dioxide over its ‘lifetime’. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas that is contributing to climate change.
- Finally, because plastic bags are free, they share some responsibility in promoting a lack of environmental concern in the consumer, which is at odds with conscientious attitude that is required for sustainable development in the UK.
In 2010 in the UK, 6.4 billion bags were distributed freely by supermarkets. This accounts for approximately 2% of total annual UK greenhouse gas emissions. Bear in mind that the UK has an ambitious target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80% in 2050 according to the 2008 Climate Change Act (Well done UK!). As such, the reduction of free plastic bags could contribute to achieving this goal.
Back in 2008, the UK government and major supermarkets (ASDA, Sainsbury’s, Tesco, the Co-operative and Waitrose) agreed on a voluntary carrier bag commitment. This voluntary agreement had a target to reduce the number of plastic bags by 50% by Spring 2009, as compared to 2006. The agreement was made in response to a government threat of a plastic bag tax. The supermarkets reduced plastic bag usage by:
- Incentivising customers to bring there own bags by providing store currency e.g. green Tesco clubcard points
- Promoting the use of reusable bags and “bags for life” by advertising them on supermarket websites, magazines and within stores
- Removing plastic bags at tills
- Providing recycling facilities for plastic bags in the supermarket
These measures achieved a 48% reduction in the use of plastic bags in England by 2009, as compared to 2006 figures, narrowly missing the 50% target. No further targets were set because supermarkets were finding it much harder to deliver reductions in plastic bags, facing growing customer resentment from individuals who considered provision of plastic bags to be a free service. However, the plastic bags are obviously not free, since the costs associated with their purchase, transport and storage are embedded in the supermarket prices. As a consequence, plastic bag usage increased from 6.1 billion bags across the UK in 2009 to 6.4 billion bags by 2010.
Other options were considered to reduce plastic bags e.g. using paper bags (however these aren’t as durable) or biodegradable bags (these aren’t as durable as conventional plastic bags; additionally they can only biodegrade when exposed to sunlight, which would obviously not happen to most plastic bags since they end up buried in landfill. As of 2011, Tesco have stopped providing biodegradable bags).
Ireland have had a plastic bag tax (PlasTax) since 2002. It has been highly successful, resulting in a 90% reduction in plastic bag use since implementation. This was a result of consumers changing their behaviour and opting to reduce the financial impact of buying bags by reusing them. This has reduced greenhouse gas emissions since less bags are now manufactured. Currently consumers in Ireland are charged 0.22 eurocents a bag. This money is collected to support waste recycling infrastructure in Ireland. The scheme generates approximately €1 million every month!
The Welsh government were disappointed by the outcome of the voluntary agreement signed by the supermarkets. As of October 2011, they have introduced a minimum charge of 5p for plastic bags. The Welsh government has recommended that proceeds generated by the plastic bag tax are to be donated to charities and environmental causes.
I believe a plastic bag carrier tax should be introduced in the rest of the UK. If it is successful, the tax should then be implemented to smaller retailers in order for there to be consistency in the government’s message of sustainable plastic bag reduction. There are many advantages of a plastic bag tax, including:
- Little regulation or prosecution is required to uphold the system since the issue is not particularly difficult to implement or controversial to the public or to the retailer (e.g. Lidl already charge 5p a bag or so and they’re doing fine in the UK).
- The tax is fair, since the customer who does bring their own bag does not have to subsidise the customer who forgets or refuses to bring their own bag. However, some customers who relied solely on free plastic bags may need to pay more to buy bags for their own use. On the other hand, other customers may benefit since retailers will pass on cost savings that were previously associated with purchasing and storing large quantities of bags.
- The money generated by the levy will also benefit consumers since it would support local environmental projects (which I think is an excellent idea!)
In conclusion, although voluntary agreements can encourage customers to act in a sustainable manner, they cannot deliver the deeper impact that a financial charge can. The voluntary agreement failed of 2008, despite the threat of official regulation. A plastic bag tax also conveys a strong sense of responsibility for the environment, sending a powerful message to the public that the government is committed to sustainable development. There are many environmental challenges ahead which will require major behavioural changes in order to minimise waste. Although single use plastic bags are not the biggest environmental threat the UK is faced with today, reducing their use is an important step in the right direction. It could inspire the pubic to address the issue of sustainable living and climate change through individual lifestyle change.
What is your view? Are free plastic bags our right as a consumers? Or are they a nuisance that belong to a age that does not consider long term sustainability issues?