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A Carrier Bag Tax is Coming to a Shop Near You

It is likely before 2015 the government will announce an end to the free plastic carrier bag in England. Should a tax or ban be introduced on carrier bags?

Governments and local authorities around the world have already banned or taxed free issue carrier bags, and there is pressure for legislation in England. They argue that cities must spend vast sums to clean up the bags and the damage caused by them, money that's better spent elsewhere. Not to mention that plastic bags are a nuisance on the environment, polluting waterways and other natural areas and killing off animals. Banning plastic bags, the activists say, will redirect funds to infrastructure and spur entrepreneurial efforts to come up with alternatives to plastic. Is this the answer?

Plastic carrier bags make up less than 1% of litter on our streets. Most litter is from snack food packaging, bottles and cans, banning or taxing plastic bags will make little or no difference to the volume of litter on our streets. However, litter is a problem of social behavior, and is not specific to any one material or product.

In 2011, 8bn plastic bags were issued in the UK and that was a 5.6% increase on 2010. The recession may have been a contributory factory with families changing their shopping behavior with smaller, more frequent shops each week. Just over a year ago a 5p charge was introduced in Wales and the amount of single-use bags has fallen significantly. Latest figures show a 70-96% reduction in the use of single-use plastic bags. Northern Ireland is set to bring in a 5p charge in 2013; Scotland had completed a consultation on a proposed charge of 5p that, if adopted, would leave England the only country without one.

In the UK, the packaging industry employs tens of thousands of people people and generates over £10bn into the economy. The answer to the problems associated with plastic bag use is not a ban or tax, but better environmental management. As consumers we must be aware that we can make positive choices to help the environment in the way that we shop. Everyone who cuts back on the number of bags that they use makes a contribution to saving resources and reducing waste. Many materials need to be managed if they are not to harm the environment. Indeed, if not properly managed, paper can be a worse polluter than plastic bags; it occupies nine times as much space landfills, and does not break down substantially faster than plastic. If a free-issue bag can be made from renewable materials that allow the bag to be multi-use and then compostable in the home, should this be part of a tax or ban?

Carrier bags are a distraction and a diversion. Major supermarkets don’t want to be the first to introduce a self-levy and do have voluntary agreements in place. There is growing public support and media spin that will go in favor of government action. Unfortunately, of all the bigger environmental problems we face today, carrier bags are not one of the critical issues. If only politicians were as keen to address climate change, biodiversity loss, the collapse of marine fisheries, and a lot more of the environmental problems rather than ‘window dressing’.

A proposed tax or ban in England would discriminate unjustly against plastics and would represent an anti-competitive move and a serious restraint on trade, damaging jobs and an industry already battling against over-regulation and under-investment.

Shameem Kazmi E s.kazmi@my.open.ac.uk Twitter: sjkazmi

Linkedin: Shameem Kazmi Skype: shameem.kazmi

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