The UK should take a collective response to climate change and introduce a tax on plastic bags, writes Baroness Parminter.
We use 6.4 billion single use carrier bags in UK supermarkets a year. Plastic bags are highly visible litter on our streets and in our countryside; pose a threat to wildlife and their disposal contributes to our green house gas (GHG) emissions, taking 500 to 1,000 years to degrade.
Following the introduction of a charge in 2002 in the Republic of Ireland plastic bag use fell by 90 per cent and raised millions of euros in revenue. Wales introduced a charge for single use plastic bags in 2011 and Northern Ireland is bringing in a 5p tax in 2013. Scotland is due to consult shortly on introducing such a tax.
At a time of tight budgets, some may feel uneasy about asking people to pay more when they go shopping. But if shoppers take their own bags they don't have to pay and there is the huge costs for disposing of these bags in household waste that shoppers pay through their council tax. Those alarming costs resulted in London Councils piloting a private bill into Parliament to reduce bag usage in the capital. That bill was withdrawn because it was promised that should retailers fail to reduce the number of bags handed out that compulsory charges would be introduced.
But plastic bag usage is now going up in the UK. After years of declining usage from 2006, figures show that in 2010 the number of plastic bags used in the UK started to increase again. The government is working with retailers to educate the public and reduce plastic bag use in shops. But we are still using on average eight bags a month per person in this country. Not every retailer is signed up to the voluntary Courtauld Agreement to reduce waste and they freely admit they won't do anymore unilaterally to cut plastic bag use. Businesses rightly argue for a level playing field – and yet now face the likely situation of plastic bag charges for shoppers in Ireland, Wales and Scotland but not England.
Successful schemes around the world have removed billions of plastic bags from circulation and raised valuable funds. More than that, a plastic bag tax here would raise the national consciousness about the role each one of us can, and must play if we are to tackle collectively the problems of litter and respond to the challenge of climate change.
Introducing a charge on plastic bags does not require new legislation – there are provisions to introduce regulations to do so in the Climate Change Act 2008. I welcome the fact that the coalition government are committed to moving towards a zero waste economy by 2020. Isn't it now time to tax these icons of a throwaway society?