Monday, October 12, 2015

New English tax on single use plastic bags 'a missed opportunity'

England has finally joined the rest of the UK in imposing a tax on non-reusable plastic bags. Wales was the first UK country to adopt such a tax in 2011, copying the Republic of Ireland which has had one in place since 2002.

From now on, anyone purchasing a bag in an English supermarket must pay 5p, in an attempt to tackle the pandemic of the 8.5 billion bags they issued in the UK in 2014. In England, the average person uses 11.7 bags per month in England compared to two bags in Wales.

But the new law [the Single Use Carrier Bags Charges (England) Order 2015] is not as strong as the ones in the three other principalities of the UK. This has led Alice Ellison, the British Retail Consortium's Environment Policy Adviser, to say that "the charge will not deliver the same environmental impact as the rest of the UK".  The BRC is the lead trade association for the retail sector.

Only retail companies employing over 250 people have to charge for single-use bags, whereas elsewhere the number is ten. This means that most retailers that are not supermarkets can carry on issuing bags free of charge. Given that 8 billion bags were issued by supermarkets in 2013, that means 7,

Ellison has called the England plastic bag charge "a missed opportunity" in that it will not "reduce the number of bags will not deliver the same environmental benefit as in the rest of the UK.

"Carrier bag numbers for Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland indicate that a carrier bag charge can trigger significant reductions in carrier bag use," she said, calling the English version "unnecessarily complicated and not consistent with the simple approach taken elsewhere in the UK. 

"The charge leaves retailers with complex messages to communicate to shoppers, such as to why some stores and some bags are exempt from the charge and why these exemptions do not exist elsewhere in the UK.  Supermarkets' environmental work extends well beyond carrier bags to wider and more important green goals including reducing packaging, carbon emissions, food waste and waste to landfill. An obsession with carrier bags must not get in the way of these bigger green goals," she said.

Policies compared:

When law brought in
Minimum number of employees above which businesses must charge for bags
Where the money goes
England 2015 n/a 250 voluntarily: local good causes
Scotland 2014 12.8% 10 voluntarily: local good causes
Northern Ireland 2013 81.2% 10 voluntarily: local good causes
Wales 2011 78.2% 10 voluntarily: local good causes
Ireland 2002 93.5% 10 Mandatory: Environment Fund with Landfill Tax

Where will the revenue go?

In Ireland, it must all go to a big pot, the Environment Fund, together with the Landfill Tax revenue. About $9.6 million was raised in the first year and the money is used for a range of environmental purposes, including schemes to prevent/reduce waste.

But in the UK, once retailers have deducted reasonable costs, they are only "expected" voluntarily to donate all proceeds to good causes. The regulations put the onus onto schools, small local community groups or national charities to apply to retailers for a share of the tax proceeds.

This money can be substantial. In Wales, from when the 5p charge was introduced up to October 2014, additional donations to good causes were up to £22 million. Between 2001 and 2014 there was an estimated overall reduction in bag use of 57% and consumer support for the charge is now riding at 74%.

In all countries, a levy on plastic shopping bags has a strong anti-litter emphasis. The Regulations in Ireland, Wales, N. Ireland and Scotland do not distinguish between biodegradable plastic bags and other plastic bags. Biodegradable bags still take a considerable time to degrade. While they may be preferable in a final treatment situation, such bags will continue to pose a litter problem.  But the English government is considering an exemption to these bags to encourage development of a new, genuinely biodegradable, more environmentally friendly bag.

The problem with plastic bags

Plastic bags are a global scourge. Over one trillion of them are used every year worldwide (source: Earth Policy Institute). An estimated 3,960,000 tons of plastic bags, sack and wraps are produced annually. Of those, 3,570,000 tons (90%) are discarded. This is almost triple the amount discarded the first year plastic bag numbers were tracked (1,230,000 Just 0.5% to 3% of all bags are recycled (BBC, CNN).

China, a country of 1.3 billion, consumes three billion plastic bags a day, according to China Trade News.

Not only do they cause a litter problem but scientists estimate that every square mile of ocean contains approximately 46,000 pieces of plastic floating in it (United Nations Environment Programme), which get into the food chain and contaminate fat with dangerous chemicals – PCBs.

This has led to Arctic-dwelling Inuit mothers being told not to breastfeed their babies for fear of giving them cancer. It has also been the cause of the deaths of uncountable marine creatures.

The bags can take up 500 years to degrade. At the least, high-density polyethylene will take over twenty years to degrade, but in landfill this can rise to over 500 years.

The manufacturing of plastic bags also consumes oil, which contributes to climate change. Each bag takes an average of 0.48 MJ (megajoules) or 0.133kWh of energy to produce (the oil that the plastic is made from and the energy to manufacture the bag).

To put this in perspective it means that you could power a an average car with 6.25 plastic bags per kilometer (= 10.06 plastic bags per mile). [This assumes a car goes 12km per litre of fuel and that petrol has an energy density of 10kWh/litre, giving 0.833kWh/km.] Figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

In Ireland it's estimated that consumption has dropped approximately 90% from around 1.2 billion plastic bags each year, before the tax was implemented to 230 million per year, saving around 18,000,000 litres of oil.

However, in some countries, like England a proportion of the bags are made of recycled plastic, which saves oil, but this does not solve the other problems caused by disposable plastic bags.

Plastic bag laws in other countries

Policies in the rest of the world vary.

The European Parliament passed a law on 28 April this year to drastically slash the eight billion or so of these bags that end up polluting the European environment every year, by amending the Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive (PPWD) as part of its work to create a 'circular economy'.

Watch a video: the problem and how the EU-wide ban will work: “An ocean of plastic to eradicate”.

The move has been welcomed by trade body European Bioplastics as a step towards banning oxo-degradable plastics, which are not properly biodegradeable despite often being touted as such, as it endorses the EN13432 standard to certify biodegradation and further improve biodegradability and compostability labelling for plastic carrier bags.

The new law will take four years to come into effect, however. It requires member states to progressively reduce their use of plastic bags, with an initial threshold of ninety bags per person per year by 2019, down to forty bags in 2025.

Some EU member states like Finland and Luxembourg are already nearly there. France, for example, has an average consumption of 79 plastic bags per person per year, and has adopted a national ban on the distribution of single-use plastic bags, which will enter into force at the start of 2016.

As of July 2014, in the USA 20 states and 132 cities where some 20 million U.S citizens dwell have bans in place or pending.

Australians use around 6 billion plastic bags per year, over half of which are supermarket bags, so if Australia introduced a similar tax to England it could by up to 3 billion plastic bags a year. Although Australia does not ban lightweight bags, the states of South Australia and North Territory along with some cities have independently set a ban. Coles Bay, Tasmania was the first. The introduction of the ‘Zero Waste’ program in South Australia led to its lightweight bag ban in October 2008. It is estimated that 400 million bags are saved each year.

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