…plastic bags?

Proposals to slap a tax on carrier bags will have little effect on the environment - they're all about politicians being seen to be green.

Rob Lyons
Columnist

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Topics Politics

Rob Lyons argues that proposals to slap a tax on plastic carrier bags will have little effect on the environment. Instead, this is all about politicians being seen to be green.

It’s funny how policy initiatives, like pop stars, seem to go through waves of fashionability. The idea of banning smoking in public, popularised in Ireland and New York, has spread like wildfire round the globe. Now, in the UK at least, the idea of taxing plastic bags is all the rage. Following the success of Ireland’s ‘plastax’, introduced in 2002 and which has just risen to €0.22 per bag (about 15 pence), the 33 boroughs of London have decided they would like to have the power to impose a similar tax on shoppers (1). BBC viewers in Wales have voted for a complete ban on plastic bags as the policy they’d most like the Welsh Assembly to implement (2).

Merrick Cockell, Conservative leader of London Councils, told BBC News: ‘We need to be a bit more bold and ambitious about reducing waste…. We have seen what happened in Ireland, where on average about 300 bags were being used per person. That has been reduced down to 21. If we can have that sort of reduction in the number of bags, then we won’t have those bags in landfill or sitting festering around for up to 400 years as they currently do.’ (3)

The success of the scheme in Ireland is striking. Very quickly, plastic bag usage dropped by around 90 per cent, apparently removing the need to consume 18million litres of oil in the production of the bags. As it happens, the effect has worn off to some extent, with bag consumption per head rising to 31 in Ireland in 2006 (hence the recent tax rise); but it is still considerably lower than its former level. The effect on litter has been particularly striking. The Irish government estimates that plastic bags made up five per cent of litter before the levy was introduced; currently plastic bags make up 0.22 per cent of litter.

Unless you’re the kind of arty amateur filmmaker featured in American Beauty, the idea of plastic bags swirling around in the wind is not very attractive. A tax that makes the world a slightly tidier place therefore seems like quite a good idea. After all, it’s just an incentive to get us to hang on to our bags and use them a few times rather than throw them away.

But the environmental impact would be minimal. According to research done for the Scottish Executive (4), the kind of plastic bag issued by supermarkets these days weighs about eight grams, and the UK gets through about 10billion of them every year. That makes about 80,000 tonnes of plastic. Compare that with the 29.6million tonnes of municipal waste collected each year; the bags amount to just 0.27 per cent of this annual municipal waste. And municipal waste itself is a fraction of that produced by industry and commerce.

The amount of oil used to produce the bags sounds like a lot, but not when compared to other uses of oil. Translating the claim that Ireland’s levy caused a reduction in oil usage of 18million litres for 1.2billion bags, the equivalent UK figure of oil saved would be roughly 150million litres. It sounds a gargantuan amount, until you realise that the UK used 48billion litres of petrol and diesel in 2005 – around 320 times as much as would apparently be saved by reducing plastic bag use (5) – never mind the oil that was used for other purposes, including the production of other plastics.

If we were really concerned to recapture resources used up in plastic bags, we could easily just incinerate our waste: these bags would burn very nicely, producing electricity as a result. But incineration is regarded, quite unfairly, as the dirty man of waste processing.

What the discussion of taxing plastic bags is all about is being seen to be green. When politics seems bereft of any big ideas to inspire the populus, this kind of small-scale, you-can-do-your-bit policy is very attractive to political leaders. And slapping another tax on our behaviour not only costs politicians nothing, it actually raises money which they can use for ‘environmental schemes’, whatever that means.

As it happens, the UK government isn’t keen on the idea – it would rather encourage supermarkets to find other ways round the problem. So, market leader Tesco is giving shoppers loyalty points if they use their own bags, while Sainsbury is using recycled plastic in its bags. These are clearly the kind of symbolic gestures that are all about making companies look good rather than making any significant difference to the environment. Unfortunately, it seems, many of our political leaders have descended to the same level.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor at spiked

Read on:

Who’s afraid of?

(1) Bid to charge 10p per plastic bag, BBC News, 13 July 2007

(2) Plastic bag ban wins popular vote, BBC News, 11 July 2007

(3) Bid to charge 10p per plastic bag, BBC News, 13 July 2007

(4) Proposed Plastic Bag Levy – Extended Impact Assessment: Volume 1: Main Report, Scottish Executive, August 2005

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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