In the budget on 12 March, Chancellor Alistair Darling announced that the government will introduce a charge on single-use plastic bags in 2009 unless "sufficient progress" is made by a voluntary agreement by retailers to reduce their environmental impacts.
Some 13 billion flimsy plastic bags are used in the UK each year, weighing 120,000 tonnes. Each Briton uses on average 220 bags each year - often for only a few minutes. Most end up in landfill sites.
The British Retail Consortium (BRC) was furious at the announcement, which it called a "populist reaction" and "green tax gimmickry". The Chancellor’s announcement threatens to undercut a voluntary agreement between retailers and government to lower the environmental impact of the bags - but that agreement was already in danger of supercession by some big retail chains taking unilateral action to drastically curb their use.
In May, Marks and Spencer (M&S) will introduce a 5p charge on carrier bags at its food checkouts. Ikea has already phased them out. Other retailers are considering a charge.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown had earlier endorsed a Daily Mail campaign against plastic bags. He said they were "one of the most visible signs of environmental waste" and called for them to be "eliminated".
In fact, pressure on retailers to reduce its use of plastic bag has been growing for some years. In 2002, the then Environment Minister Michael Meacher suggested the UK should follow Ireland’s lead and introduce a tax on plastic bags that had cut use by 90% (ENDS Report 328, pp 16-17 ).
However, the promise of voluntary action by retailers staved off legislation. In February 2007, a group of 21 BRC members including ASDA, Boots, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and M&S signed an agreement with the government to reduce the "environmental impact" of plastic bags by 25% by the end of 2008 (ENDS Report 386, p 18 ).
But the government’s Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) that runs the agreement recently reported that it was "disappointed" with its progress.
One problem with the agreement is its lack of clarity over the environmental impact target. This is measured only by a reduction in the use of virgin plastic, which in 2007 was cut by 14% (15,000 tonnes) compared to 2006. No target has been set to reduce the actual number of bags although the signatories cut usage by 1 billion bags between 2006-2007 to 12.4 billion.
WRAP said the environmental impact target should have been supported by a life-cycle assessment of all the effects of plastic bags by the Environment Agency, but it has yet to complete the work.
Another problem is that progress by participants has been "very variable", according to WRAP. Because the target is shared, some have reduced virgin plastic use by 70%, while others have increased consumption - by 22% in one case. Compounding this is a lack of transparency. Data on performance is confidential so there is no public or peer pressure to achieve the agreement.
Despite this, the agreement is on track to achieve its target by the end of 2008, said BRC business environment director Jane Milne. She said was dismayed by government threats to legislate before the agreement had run its course. "Retailers share the government’s goal of reducing the environmental impact of plastic bags, but companies know their customers best and they should be left to decide how to go about it," she said.
Richard Swannell, WRAP retail director, said: "The voluntary agreement is delivering what was expected of it - useful information on how best to reduce the impacts of plastic bags."
Nevertheless, just before the budget WRAP announced that a mandatory charge on throwaway bags could play a "significant role in changing consumer behaviour". The charge should cover all bags types, not just plastic, because other materials such as paper also have an environmental impact.
Firms have used various methods to reduce plastic bag consumption. In 2006, Tesco introduced incentives under its loyalty card scheme for customers to reuse bags. This has cut bag use by 1.3 billion. But it still gives away some 3 billion per year. Tesco said it opposed charges for single-use plastic bags: "The best approach is through education and incentives rather than coercion."
Since 2006, bags offered by Sainsbury’s have contained one third recycled plastic, saving 6,500 tonnes of virgin material each year. It has also cut the number of bags it gives away by 10% in the last year. Asda recently announced that from June checkout staff will only give away bags on request. All the major supermarkets including Morrisons, Somerfield and Waitrose sell re-useable ‘bags for life’.
In February, M&S stole a march on other high street retailers by announcing it is to introduce a 5p charge on single-use carrier bags from 6 May in all of its UK food stores. For one month before, it will provide customers with a free bag for life.
M&S decided to introduce the charge after trials in 50 stores that reduced the number of bags used by customers by 70%. It expects to see a similar cut nationwide, saving 280 million bags each year. M&S will give all proceeds from the charge to environmental regeneration charity Groundwork.
From May, M&S’s standard carrier bags will be made from 100% recycled plastic, reducing the amount of virgin material used by 3,400 tonnes per year. The company’s bag for life is already made from 100% recycled plastic.
Debenhams and B&Q are considering a 5p charge while last year Ikea phased out plastic bags altogether.
London councils welcomed the Chancellor’s announcement and urged the government to support their private Bill for a capital-wide ban on throwaway bags which awaits its second reading (ENDS Report 395, p 58 ).