SRC=”/images/features/aug05/0508plastic-bag.jpg” align=right vspace=5 border=0>The humble supermarket plastic bag is accused of causing litter and filling landfill sites. The levy put on plastic bags in Ireland has been called a success by the Irish government and a member of the Scottish parliament wants a tax there, but the UK government appears to have given up on the idea. Chris Lyddon reports.

The Irish Republic has had a levy on plastic bags since 4 March 2004, and according to The Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government it’s been “an outstanding success”. The department reckons that consumption of plastic bags has fallen by 90% while the revenue had raised €37.7m (US$46m) from the levy by the end of 2004.
The retailers have got used to it, Torlach Denihan, director of the Irish retailers’ group Retail Ireland, told just-food. “If you asked a typical Irish retailer what were their five, six or seven top concerns, I doubt the plastic bag levy would feature,” he said. “It’s in place and people have just accepted it.”

Their customers like the levy, so Irish retailers have learned to live with it. “The public took to it with acclaim,” he said. But it did create challenges for retailers, including changes to IT systems to collect the levy.

“There was a stock of redundant plastic bags,” he said. “If the Scots do it they should give notice so that people can run down stocks.”

There were also some problems with shoplifting. “It meant an additional effort in store security,” he said. “Most customers are honest, but it does mean extra opportunities for those that aren’t.”

Sometimes the alternatives people used to transport their shopping were not quite what the legislator, or the supermarkets, had in mind. “There has definitely been an increase in the number of people taking trolleys and baskets out of stores,” he said. “But people got over it.”

Scottish Plan

The apparent success of the Irish levy has encouraged Mike Pringle, a Liberal Democrat member of the Scottish Parliament, to introduce the Environmental Levy on Plastic Bags (Scotland) Bill, which would impose a ten pence levy on plastic bags.

Like all legislation it is taking time. “The parliamentary process is slow to say the least,” he told just-food. “The bill was introduced a few weeks ago, but prior to that there was a consultation process. The bill had to be written,” he said. “Once it’s introduced parliament calls for evidence. That happened at the end of June.”

Then there is a call to give evidence on one of a number of evidence days in September or October. “The (environment) committee will make a decision in November as to whether to support the principle of the bill,” he said. “There is no indication as to whether the executive is going to support it or not. I would hope that the executive would get behind it. They will probably wait to see what the committee thinks.”

Pringle is convinced a levy will work and is needed. “There are 101 reasons for it,” he said. “We’ve got to improve targets for recycling and improve the environment. This bill does those things. It increases awareness of the environment and of litter. They are a very visible form of litter.”

He uses the success of the Irish scheme as one justification. “Where it has been tried it has been remarkably successful,” he said. “In Ireland suppliers just don’t give out plastic bags. There has been some increase in the use of paper, but the 80% (used in supermarkets) was replaced by people buying bags for continued use.” Under his scheme any bag costing more than 60 pence is exempt from the levy.

“The other thing with paper bags is that virtually all of them are made out of recycled paper,” he said. “The actual effect on the environment is very beneficial.”

He does not believe that the levy would make any difference to the level of shoplifting. “There was thieving before,” he said, referring to the Irish levy. “There is thieving now. There’s been no perceivable increase.”

He also believes that a levy would encourage people to get more involved in recycling. He points out that in Edinburgh a tonne of rubbish sent to landfill costs £70.

Ireland proves that a levy does cut bag use, he said. “In Ireland people very quickly said 15 cents for a plastic bag – no thank you I’ll bring my own,” he said. “The civil servants I spoke to in Ireland said that within ten days the reduction was reported as over 80%. There was an awareness campaign. Within ten days people had stopped using plastic bags.” Now the Irish simply don’t use the bags. “It’s only tourists who ever ask for plastic bags.”

Any negative effect on employment would be small. “I would say I regret it if anybody would lose their job as a result of my bill,” he said. “Any bill would have an effect on us as a society. The only negative is that some people inevitably will lose their jobs. Most of them will not actually be in Scotland. Most of them will be in the far east, because that’s where the bags are made and printed – 98% of them.”

Scottish retailers reject the plan

Mike Pringle’s plan has been rejected by the Scottish retailers’ group The Scottish Retail Consortium. “Retailers are rejecting the proposed Bill and questioning the drive behind it,” said SRC director Fiona Moriarty.

Some of the bill’s strongest opponents have joined together in the Carrier Bag Consortium. Peter Woodall, spokesman for the group, pointed out that the idea has already been considered in the UK. “The idea of a bag tax was first mooted in 2002 by [then environment minister] Michael Meacher,” he told just-food. “He commissioned a study by the Cabinet Office’s Waste Strategy Unit. Their firm conclusion was that a tax on plastic bags would not be a good idea for the environment. At that point Westminster abandoned the idea.”

Now a study was being carried out by the Scottish parliament in just the same way. “We’re awaiting publication of that report,” he said. “We’re confident that because of the lifecycle impact, the plastic bag is by far the better environmental choice.” Even though there are employment implications, he believed that the issue would be decided one the environmental issue.

“It’s complicated by the fact that there has been a bag tax of 15 cents in the Republic of Ireland,” he said. “It has given us valuable insights into what happens, but it’s confused things for the Scottish experts. Mr Pringle says that it’s worked in Ireland, so it would work in Scotland.”

He pointed out that the Scottish parliament did not have the power to adopt a tax, which is why it is called a local environmental levy and attacked the bureaucracy inherent in the scheme. “Thirty-two separate Scottish local authorities would have to have an enforcement register,” he said. “All retailers would have to keep records for five years to prove they have charged the tax. Shopkeepers who don’t charge could be fined.”

“There are concerns among the local authorities that this is an unworkable proposition,” he said. “It applies to all carrier bags, even paper if they’ve got some plastic in it, like plastic handles, linings or coatings. A lot of people buy food in produce bags. Mr Pringle has decided they should be exempt. It’s an enormously complicated and bureaucratic tax.”

He also questioned the benefits in Ireland. “What’s happened in Ireland is that while you would expect that the claimed 90% reduction in plastic bags used would mean less plastic – 80% of households use plastic bags as bin liners or for dog droppings,” he said. “In Ireland people had to start buying vast quantities refuse bags and bin liners. There’s been around 700 tonnes of plastic saved for bags in Ireland because of this and an equal increase in other plastic bags.”

Paper was not the answer. “Fashion stores etc switched in Ireland almost entirely to paper,” he said. “One fashion retailer used to get a pallet load of plastic bags in a week. Now they get four containers full of paper. Paper is ten times the volume.”

“Expert studies in Scotland have estimated that there will be about a 3,000 tonne (a year) reduction in carrier bags in Scotland and an increase of 8,000 tonnes of paper,” he said. “There would be a net increase of 5,000 tonnes of paper.” That wasn’t good news for the environment. “Paper degrades to methane and CO2 (greenhouse gases), which cause big environmental problems. Plastic bags are stable.”
There was also a problem with hygiene. “Re-use does create a problem with public hygiene,” he said. “There’s a likely contamination problem from re-use. The plastic bag you get at the supermarket is packed sterile.”

The Scottish Retail Consortium’s line is hard. Its statement in response to Mike Pringle’s proposal ends with the words: “We find it hard to see any justification for a plastic bag tax to be introduced in Scotland.”