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Why is the government dithering over a plastic bag charge in England?

Plastic Bags

Powered by article titled “Why is the government dithering over a plastic bag charge in England?” was written by Leo Hickman, for on Thursday 24th January 2013 08.00 UTC

The world faces a panoply of daunting environmental challenges – climate change, deforestation, overfishing. The list is long. Each will require determined action and, most likely, international political agreement if they are to be overcome. This we already know.

But, thankfully, some environmental problems are much more readily met. Greatly reducing the impact of single-use plastic bags is one such example. It is the very lowest of the hanging fruit and is being picked by a growing number of countries and cities around the world.

So, why is England still dragging its feet?

In June 2011, Richard Benyon, the environment minister, was asked in parliament “what consideration has he given to the merits of placing a requirement on businesses to charge for plastic carrier bags”. Benyon responded:

A range of measures to reduce the distribution of single use carrier bags was considered as part of the Review of Waste Policy and a decision will be made in 2012. This timetable enables us to take into account the experience in Wales, where a charge will come into force in October 2011, and the results of the European Commission consultation that is currently being undertaken on a number of possible options for reducing the use of plastic carrier bags, including charging and a ban.

Now that we’re into 2013, my colleague Adam Vaughan contacted the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) last week to ask if a decision had now been made. A spokesman responded that no firm timetable for action had yet been established:

We want to work with retailers to help them lift their game to cut the number of bags they hand out. We are monitoring the results of the charging scheme in Wales and the outcome of the Scottish consultation on a charge so that we can make a fully informed decision.

This sounds like yet more procrastination to me. The Welsh example now shows quite clearly that introducing a charge on single-use plastic bags acts to significantly and rapidly reduce their use. Wales has also – wisely, in my view – chosen to ring-fence the funds raised to be used by charities on environmental projects. Figures released by WRAP last July show there was a 22% fall in bag use in Wales between 2010 and 2011 which covers the period when the 5p charge was introduced.

Just this month Northern Ireland took the plunge, too. And the move is gathering steam across the rest of Europe, with Ireland often still cited as a successful early adopter.

Meanwhile, in England, bag use in on the rise – as much as 7.5% over the same period, according to WRAP. This is sad news, particularly because bag use had been on the decline since 2006 following a major campaign by supermarkets and other retailers to tackle the handing out of free bags to customers. The effort also had the influential support of the Daily Mail with its “Banish the Bags” campaign. So to see these advances slip back is concerning. And yet the government continues to dither and delay over its decision to introduce a charge for plastic bags in England.

Why? Is the government heeding the cries of the plastic bag industry lobbyists? Following the publication last week of Adam Vaughan’s story, Barry Turner, chief executive of the Packaging and Films Association and the Carrier Bag Consortium, sent him a letter. Here it is, in full:

Instead of repeating so many environmental myths about plastic bags, your article dated 15 January might also have considered that the Government recognises the value of science over spin by taking heed of the most authoritative Life Cycle Analysis on the subject (UK Environment Agency science report SC030148). Good environmental practice is about reducing impacts, reusing resources and recycling at the end of life. The plastic carrier bag offers all of these routes to becoming the most environmentally acceptable solution for carrying goods home. This is because it has the lowest impacts in production and transportation, is re-used by 80% of households (for example as a bin bag – DEFRA/WRAP Studies) and can easily be recycled using more than 5,000 collection points at our supermarkets.
Any litter is unacceptable but the reality is that plastic bags are a tiny component of litter as evidenced by Keep Britain Tidy Local Environmental Quality Survey for England (2008-9). This shows that plastic carriers represent just 0.03% of littered items. Not surprising, therefore, that you had to use a picture of littered beaches from the other side of the world to achieve the required dramatic effect.
We would also take issue with your use of the emotive word “soared” to describe a 7% increase in carrier bag usage. The fact remains that under our voluntary agreement with retailers and Government, plastic carrier usage has actually plummeted by more than 40% and their carbon impacts reduced by more than 60% in recent years.
Perhaps the Government, in recognising, all of this sets their environmental priorities on the basis of getting the balance right – they know that UK’s entire annual consumption plastic carrier bags has equivalent carbon impacts to around one average 8 mile journey for every car in the UK . They also understand that small increases in bag usage – and petrol consumption – will increase in times of austerity as people shop more frequently for smaller numbers of items.
Finally, although your readers may have been subjected many times to exaggerated stories of plastic bags killing wildlife, there is no robust evidence that this issue is widespread or demands bag taxes – we suspect far more creatures are slaughtered by motor vehicles every day than will ever be killed by plastic bags.
What we need is responsible and balanced environmental debate. We don’t need more taxes aimed at getting rid of plastic carriers. By demonizing the plastic bag, you simply encourage the unintended consequence of displacing them with heavier higher impact ways of getting our shopping home and at the same time place a greater burden on the family purse.

There seems to be a fair amount of spinning going on here. We shouldn’t be surprised: it’s something lobbyists are paid to do. But let’s look at the key points.

The first paragraph contains the carefully constructed sentence: “The plastic carrier bag offers all of these routes to becoming the most environmentally acceptable solution for carrying goods home.” Note it doesn’t say single-use plastic bag, which is the topic at hand. Also note the use of the word “becoming”, meaning that the statement relies on the bag being used in the “correct” way.

And what does “UK Environment Agency science report SC030148″ (pdf) actually say? It begins by stating that it only examined the “global warming impact” of carrier bags:

The report does not consider the introduction of a carrier bag tax, the effects of littering, the ability and willingness of consumers to change behaviour, any adverse impacts of degradable polymers in the recycling stream, nor the potential economic impacts on UK business.

But, hang on: no one is seriously arguing that plastic bag use should be restricted solely because of their “global warming impact”. And even if this was the case – which it isn’t (any concern is largely centred on waste stream/litter/resource use impacts) – the report shows that “bags for life” very quickly gain an advantage over single-use HDPE bags:

The paper, LDPE (“bag for life”), non-woven PP and cotton bags should be reused at least 3, 4, 11 and 131 times respectively to ensure that they have lower global warming potential than conventional HDPE carrier bags that are not reused.

The letter then goes on to say that single-use plastic bags are “re-used by 80% of households, for example as a bin bag”. This claim intrigued me. Surely, it’s not in question that four out of every five households reuse a plastic bag in some way. The only meaningful question here is what percentage of the plastic bags they bring home are actually re-used.

The letter cites “DEFRA/WRAP Studies”, which is rather vague. So I hunted around online. I found other variations of this citation, but not the actual original report. For example, here it says:

A DEFRA/WRAP study IPSOS MORI in 2007 showed that 80% of households reuse their plastic bags at least once for lining bins, wrapping used nappies or food waste before putting them in the bin, or for cleaning up after dogs. Only 6% throw them away immediately.

So I asked WRAP to look for it. It took them a few days of searching, but finally they got back to me:

The Ipso Mori study is a piece of internal research WRAP undertook in 2007 to inform our work on consumer attitudes to a range of waste related issues. I believe carrier bags were only a very small part of the focus which was otherwise on recycling and food waste. This asked respondents “On average, which one of the following statements comes closest to what you normally do with free disposable supermarket carrier bags?”

In that study, for single use carrier bags:
6% say they throw them away, and
5% recycle without reusing.
37% claim to reuse them as bin bags, and
37% say they reuse them for shopping, with a significant number suggesting this is more than once
12% say they don’t use them, and 3% don’t know

This shows a 74% reuse for carrier bags.

WRAP also undertook a much more detailed study specifically on lightweight carrier bag usage in 2005. This found [on page 66] that 59% of respondents reused all carrier bags, 16% reused most of them, 7% reused around half of them and 7% reused some of them. Overall it was estimated that 76% of single use carrier bags were reused – in line with the 2007 figure. The study also asked respondents how they reused carrier bags and found that 53% of respondents said that they used carrier bags as a replacement for kitchen bin liners.

I find this rather surprising. Is it really the case that 59% of all plastic bags are re-used? (On page 64, it says that households bring home, on average, “just over 8 bags per week”.) Is it not the case that most households have a drawer, or carrier bag, stuffed full of plastic bags awaiting re-use, but the reality is that relatively few are reused as, say, bin liners, whereas most are ultimately thrown away?

But my own anecdotal musings are irrelevant. Even if a “single use” bag is re-used as a bin liner, it is still ultimately headed for landfill or incineration after being used just twice. Bags for life are designed to allow multiple opportunities for re-use, instead of simply a one-off re-use. The aim of a plastic bag charge is to reduce our waste stream and use of resources.

The letter next moves on to the Keep Britain Tidy Local Environmental Quality Survey for England (2008-9), which “shows that plastic carriers represent just 0.03% of littered items”. I looked at this report (pdf), but I couldn’t find where it directly said, or even implied, this. (Perhaps a reader can spot it?) But, again, we need the detailed context: is this, say, by weight, volume, or quantity of items counted?

The letter also takes issue with the word “soar” to describe the 7% recent rise in use. Semantic arguments aside, it is still a reality that, despite a fall in their use since 2006 (for reasons described above), their use is now back on the rise. In other words, once the newspaper campaigns die down, and the retailers move their focus elsewhere, the use of plastic bags has increased significantly.

The letter then makes a rather intriguing claim: “Small increases in bag usage – and petrol consumption – will increase in times of austerity as people shop more frequently for smaller numbers of items.”

I don’t know what Turner is basing this on, but the government figures on petrol consumption don’t appear to support the idea that petrol consumption increases in times of austerity. Quite the opposite, in fact, as the data for “unleaded motor spirit” on page 6 of this latest report on the UK Energy Statistics (pdf) shows.

Lastly, the letter states that there’s “no robust evidence” that plastic bags kill wildlife. There are certainly plenty of emotive images and reports around showing, say, the contents of a sperm whale’s stomach, or a turtle swallowing a bag, but there does indeed seem to be little quantitative research demonstrating clearly the specific impact plastic bags have on wildlife. But this doesn’t mean we should be in anyway complacent about the impact non-biodegrable plastic bags are likely having on wildlife. Litter is litter: let’s aim to reduce it wherever possible.

Bizarrely, the letter also states that “we suspect far more creatures are slaughtered by motor vehicles every day than will ever be killed by plastic bags”. This is what they call a straw-man argument. No one is trying to argue that plastic bags kill more creatures than motor vehicles. (Note, too, how it says “we suspect” having just asked for “robust evidence” in the very same sentence?!)

My wider point, though, is not that we simply must, above all else, introduce a plastic bag charge in England. This is, in fact, very low down the list of environmental priorities, as I have written before. My concern is that the government appears to be taking an age to make a seemingly straight-forward decision. If it can procrastinate for this long over plastic bags, it doesn’t bode well for the much more significant environmental challenges we face. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

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