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Hamish Champ is the editor of PRW. When not doinghis day job he finds time to ride his motorcycle, listen to Deep Purple and take his 12 year-old son to the cinema/park/football/pub...

Plastic bags: a taxing issue

Posted on 5 October 2015

The media – at least in England – is today awash with stories about the plastic bag tax that came into force across the country from this morning. It’s the end of the world for some newspapers, apparently.

Supermarket customers in England will have to pay at least 5p to use one of these bags for their shopping

Shoppers can expect to be charged at least 5p per plastic carrier bag they use to cart home purchases from a large store – that is to say one that employs more than 250 people. Some, like Marks & Spencer, already do. Now they'll all have to.

We at PRW have previously touched on the complexity of the rules governing what bags can be charged for or given away free. For example, plastic carrier bags containing uncooked meat can be used free of charge.

But bung in a few ambient goods with that fresh chicken or beef joint and the 5p bag charge will apply. Confusing for shoppers and a nightmare for check-out staff who will have to break the news to customers that their bag is going to cost them money, albeit a few pence.

Environmentalists want the bag tax in place in order to reduce the number of bags in circulation and, they conclude, therefore cut down the number floating around our streets and countryside.

Looking at the numbers in those countries where a tax has already been applied it would seem the levy works with regard to the former. Wales has seen a 71% drop in the number of bags used by shoppers, following the levy’s introduction there in 2011.

In Scotland usage reportedly fell 90% last year after a 5p charge came into effect, although that figure may have come down since. Northern Ireland saw a 71% fall in bag use immediately after the charge was introduced in 2013, although this shifted to 42% a year later.

Maybe some people get used to paying the charge and revert to buying bags at the checkout, rather than taking a scrunched up carrier or two out with them on the off chance they might pop into a supermarket on their way home.

Either way, whatever the plastics industry says about bag taxes, such levies are pretty effective in reducing the use of bags. Fewer bags in circulation means, in theory at least, fewer will be disposed of ‘irresponsibly’.

And herein lies the rub. Where will such a plastic tax end? What is to stop a government minister or someone with a minister’s ear positing the view that to really clean up the environment pretty much anything that is served up in plastic should be hit with a ‘pollution tax’? Plastic drinks bottles anyone?

Anecdotal evidence suggest to me that littering isn’t as big a problem in this day and age as it was when I was a child, when chucking stuff on the ground wasn’t the socio-community faux pas it is today.

But it is still a problem. And bag taxes notwithstanding, much more needs to be done to educate people that discarding their waste requires some thought – and no small amount of consideration for the rest of us.

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22 September 2015

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