Got A Brand New Bag

Merrick, 13th September 2005ce

Carrier bags are commonly used to lift groceries into the trolley, then into the car, then from the car to the kitchen. A cumulative 20 seconds of use, before being binned and new ones being used on the next shopping trip. Even ardent environmentalists who don’t throw them away and try to reuse still somehow end up with dozens of carrier bags secreted somewhere in their kitchen.

We get through a staggering 17 billion carrier bags a year in the UK, and billions more smaller plastic bags. The per capita figures were similar for Ireland, until March 2002 when they introduced a tax of 15c (about 10p) on bags. Since then, everyone takes bags shopping with them. Better still, people are buying cloth bags that last for years. Carrier bag consumption is less than one tenth of what it was before. The tax raised 3.5m Euros in the first five months alone, which was spent on environmental projects. There is no reason why the UK cannot do the same.

A 10p tax, even with a 90% cut in use, would raise £170m a year. More, it would be popular - a MORI poll showed 63% of the British public would be in favour of such a tax.

The continued overconsumption of plastic bags is squandering vast quantities of the oil from which they’re made, it is polluting land and waterways for millennia to come, killing huge number of birds, fish and other wildlife, and all for no good reason whatsoever. There is no real benefit to using new bags. Taking bags with you is not heavy, bulky, complicated, difficult or cumbersome. There is simply no need to get new bags every time. If we can't get our heads round something as effort-free and obviously beneficial as this, what chance of getting our heads round the things that will take some real sacrifice?

Conversely, the taxing of bags would heighten awareness of the environmental impacts of waste and encourage a more responsible attitude to the generation of landfill rubbish.

Mike Pringle, a LibDem MSP, has put forward the Plastic Bags (Scotland) Bill which would introduce a tax of 10p per bag in Scotland.

The proposal has been attacked by the Scottish Retail Consortium, whose spokesperson Fiona Moriarty said ‘The introduction of a levy on carriers will unfairly penalise the innovative steps being made towards the manufacture of bags from recycled plastics or using biodegradable plastics. A tax should encourage markets for recycled plastic carriers instead of penalising alternatives.’

If recycled or biodegradable bags are given away free then we consume at least ten times as many as if they were taxed, with the attendant tenfold energy consumption. They then go to landfill sites where the recycled ones stay for centuries, refusing to rot. Clearly, cutting the demand for bags via the tax has the greater environmental benefit.

The slogan of ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ puts the words in that order for a reason.

Would the Irish system have the same effect elsewhere? It already is. In Taiwan bag consumption dropped by 80% after the introduction of a 2p tax in 2002.

In 1994, Denmark introduced a plastic bag tax. The tax is paid by the shops rather than the consumers, so ‘free’ bags are still available. Nonetheless, as many retailers now charge for bags, and the law was introduced as part of a wider law about packaging that increased consumer awareness, Danish plastic bag consumption fell by two-thirds.

It’s not only the wildlife, landfill and resource depletion reasons that are fuelling the wave of bag reduction legislation sweeping the world.

Plastic bags were banned in Mumbai in 2000, with police raiding remaining suppliers in 2001. Officials say it's not just litter and blocked drains (encouraging flooding and disease) - it's also that the chemicals from the bags leach into the soil and the food chain, causing neurological disorders. Because plastic bags are so difficult and uneconomical to recycle, used bags aren't even picked up from rubbish sites by Mumbai’s destitute litter-sifting underclass.

Flooding can submerge up to three quarters of Bangladesh, and standing water in such a climate breeds many serious diseases, so drainage is a massive life-and-death issue affecting millions of people. Massive floods have been prolonged because drainage was hampered by stray plastic bags. Bangladesh banned plastic bags in the capital Dhaka in January 2002, and extended the ban to the whole of the country three months later.

Japan is looking at implementing a scheme similar to the Irish one, and in August this year Japanese officials met with Irish Environment Minister Dick Roche to get detailed information and analysis on the tax.

In South Africa, tatters from plastic bags so commonly adorn trees and bushes that they are sardonically called 'the national flower'. In May 2003 the South African government introduced a law that banned the thinnest bags – under 30 microns thick, the sort that get a tear if you put anything with corners in - so that at least bags were likely to get reused. Initially the government proposed a ban on bags under 80 microns. The measure was, of course, opposed by vested interests and watered down to substantially thinner than originally intended.

The same results seen around the world are already seen in areas of the UK. For the last year B&Q have had an experiment charging 5p a bag at their Scottish stores (why do things always get tested on Scotland first? Is it that if we find out that the bag thing or the Poll Tax are a bad idea it's OK cos we've only inflicted it on Scots?). They report a lot of positive response from customers, only four complaints, and an 85% cut in bag consumption.

As a nod to their constituency MSP Mike Pringle, IKEA’s Edinburgh store now charges 5p per bag. They’ve had a 95% reduction in bag consumption, and the ones that have been sold have raised £7,000 for local charitable projects. As with B&Q they’ve had a lot of positive customer response and almost no complaints. Customers now generally bring their own bags.

In 2002, during Michael Meacher’s tenure as Environment Secretary, the government was proposing a 9p tax on bags if the then-new Irish program worked. However, Meacher’s keenness on many environmental issues, especially his opposition to GM crops, got him sacked to make way for corporate lickspittle Margaret Becket. Since she took over – despite the dramatic success of the Irish system the government was watching prior to introducing it here - all plans for a bag tax have been dropped.

In October 2004 the subject came up in the House of Lords. Advocating the tax, Labour peer Lord Dubs (sounds like a reggae star to me) said ‘the proposal to tax plastic bags would be good for the planet, good for wildlife and good for the Chancellor? When do the Government have a win, win, win solution?’. Responding for the government, Lord Davies of Oldham disparaged ‘the limited success’ of the Irish system and confirmed that the government was not interested in bringing in a bag tax.

This choice of downplay word was used in the recent BBC News item about the Scottish proposals. Bags plan “has limited benefits” was the headline. As opposed to what, unlimited benefits?

Surely a plan with some benefits, even limited ones, is better than the status quo. ‘Bags plan would deliver benefits’ would also be true. Why do they want to understate the case? The report had several other peculiarities inconsistent with unbiased journalism. The comparison in the headline is between taxed plastic bags and free paper bags; if people merely switch to the latter then there would be some environmental benefit but not as much as you’d think.

However, as the research being quoted overtly says but the BBC ignored, there is also the option of taxing all bags, plastic and paper. This would decrease bag use and encourage reuse, delivering far greater environmental benefits.

Most unsettlingly, the BBC report initially included the fact that Irish bag consumption has been cut by 90-95%. However, it was swiftly cut from the piece, and the fact now appears only as an allegation from the Greens and LibDems.

Rather like the way the BBC always has climate change framed in terms of a climatologist saying ‘it’s happening’ and some loon saying ‘it isn’t’, the effect is to stop the hard evidence from moving us forward on environmentally sound ideas.

Having two opposing sides does not show journalistic balance if one of those sides is informed and reasoned but the other is not.

If you’re wondering who the deniers are, follow the money. As always, there is an industry body dedicated to testing our credulity and preventing sense prevailing.

The Carrier Bag Consortium is a group of manufacturers who are unsurprisingly opposed to a tax. When Mike Pringle first suggested the bag tax, CBC spokesman Peter Woodall said: 'The people of Scotland should know that the supermarket carrier bag represents less than 1% of litter on the streets and the waste in our landfill sites. So reducing their use will make no difference to our litter problem nor will it affect the amount of waste going to landfill.'

Ignoring the fact that '1%' and 'no difference' are quantifiably different, what he's saying is unless a single kind of item represents a large percentage of waste, there is no point in reducing its use.

In explaining their local drive to encourage less bag use, Durham City Council said they spend £20,000 a year on landfill tax for carrier bags alone. As our waste production vastly exceeds landfill capacity, a crisis point is going to be reached within a decade.

Also, the fact that this waste is far more resilient than the overwhelming majority of the other landfill and so is responsible for a disproportionately huge amount of pollution of land and water, blocked drainage systems and choked wildlife is apparently irrelevant to Mr Woodall and the CBC.

They are joined in its deliberately twisted thinking by the British Plastics Federation who defend plastic bags on the grounds that they are ‘popular and convenient’, going on to describe them as an ‘environmental success story’.

After Mike Pringle proposed the bag tax for Scotland, the Scottish Executive commissioned an Extended Impact Assessment of the idea. Surprisingly, their conclusion states that ‘in all circumstances, paper bags have a greater negative environmental impact than conventional plastic carrier bags’.

This isn’t actually true, but nonetheless there are numerous studies showing that paper isn’t as green as you might imagine. Paper uses vast quantities of water in its manufacture. A paper bag uses at least as much energy to make as a plastic one, and it’s a lot thicker and heavier. This means a lot more transportation weight and warehouse space for the same quantity of bags, with all the energy consumption that involves. As they are far bulkier, they require greater amounts of plastic-wrap to package them when being shipped to the retailers. Paper also leaches out assorted chemicals as it rots.

But those who point to these criticisms tend to ignore the impact of the actual substance of plastic and paper. Plastic doesn’t put as much chemical poison into water courses as it breaks down for the simple reason that it doesn’t break down. This in itself is the problem. Given the degradability of paper and the persistence of plastic, in any long-term view the environmental impact of plastic is clearly greater, and the long-term view is the most important one to take when considering environmental concerns.

Also, the claim presumes switching from free plastic bags to free paper bags. Paper bags could also be taxed with only a small addition to a Bill for taxing plastic bags, and this would bring net environmental benefit whichever way you measure it. This would be improved further if there were higher tax for bags made of non-recycled paper.

The CBC claim a reduction in use would hit British jobs, even though the overwhelming majority of bags come from abroad (24% from China and rising fast, 32% from Malaysia, 20% from Thailand). British jobs are not really going to be affected, but frankly that’s not the point on this aspect. People should not be employed to produce goods that are surplus to requirements. Disposing of perfectly working items amply demonstrates that we have an excess and should rein in their production.

The overuse is compounded by wasteful alternatives being portrayed as responsible and green. Three years ago the Co-op proudly launched their fully biodegradable bags. They start to degrade about 18 months after manufacture, and should be completely gone in three years. Whilst this is an improvement on bags that hang around for millennia, it's still giving bags away 'free' (ie paid for by adding the cost on to groceries), which encourages overuse.

For all the Co-Op’s claims of social responsibility, it continues to give out its ‘ethical’ bags made from unsustainably sourced oil-derived polymer with additives to initiate fragmentation, an absurd waste of a rapidly decreasing resource. As policy they flatly oppose any tax on biodegradable plastic or paper bags.

A few months later Sainsbury's introduced a compostable bag made from tapioca starch, but it was little more than a tokenistic publicity stunt. They're only dishing them out at three stores. Whilst they’re certainly an improvement on the Co-Op’s oil-plastic bags, the tapioca bags are still given away and so are treated as disposable and junked when intact. Growing food plants and using them to make things we throw away when there’s nothing wrong with them is obscene.

In Ireland, the thick bag-for-life style bags have become very popular (they’re exempt from the tax). They last a lot longer than the thinner bags and are easier to recycle. They are, however, still unsustainable and undesirable for the same reasons as other plastic bags.

The use of strong natural fibres such as hemp is by far the best option. In Bangladesh the replacement for polythene has been the natural fibre jute, which is widely grown in the country, makes strong reusable bags that last for years and takes a lot less energy to process than polythene.

All the deniers like the Carrier Bag Consortium make crooked claims based on unfair comparisons. They choose to only compare plastic to paper, ignoring any reduction measures or the option of natural fibre.

With the Scottish Bill coming up for parliamentary debate, the CBC’s Peter Woodall is back, dismissing the reasons for proposed bag tax as ‘the very worst case of junk science’ and foretelling ‘clouds of methane over Scotland’ if paper bags are used instead of plastic. He explains, ‘plastic bags do not degrade, and thank goodness for that. When things do degrade they produce CO2 and methane, the most potent green house gases.’

Tangentially - just to dispel some junk science - CO2 and methane are by no means the most potent greenhouse gases. For example, tetra-fluoromethane and hexa-fluoromethane (emitted by the manufacture of metals) are more potent by several orders of magnitude.

But referring to the case in point, the CO2 released as paper degrades was taken from the atmosphere by the tree. It is part of the carbon cycle and so not adding CO2 to the atmosphere in any real sense. In contrast, oil derived plastics eventually degrade, or are burned in incinerators, and are clearly adding CO2 to the atmosphere.

The CBC’s misleading ‘bags are only 1% of waste’ quote appears almost verbatim in the ‘impartial’ Scottish Executive report’s conclusions: ‘The fact that plastic bags account for less than 1% of land litter suggests that this would have a minor impact on the overall litter problem in Scotland.’

Litter is not really the problem with plastic bags. They’re using the fact that one non-biodegradable product accounts for less than 1% of landfill waste to imply that it’s not really a problem. Which is rather like saying that if arsenic accounts for less than 1% of the volume of your diet then you’ve nothing to worry about.

A measure that takes 1% out of the waste going to landfill with no detriment and a host of benefits should not be open to debate any longer. It’s a measure so simple, so easy to implement, so clearly beneficial that there is no reason for it not to be enacted. It is opposed only by those with vested interests; the bag manufacturers, some retailers and, it is now clear, our government.

Each day we delay it another 25,000,000 carrier bags go into water courses and landfill sites.