Plastic bag 'tax' finally put before Scottish Parliament

Almost two years after it first won support, a Bill imposing a levy on plastic bags has been put before the Scottish Parliament. Retailers are, however, gearing up to launch three projects to show that plastic bag use can be cut without resorting to taxes.

Liberal Democrat MSP Mike Pringle first won support for his Environmental Levy on Plastic Bags (Scotland) Bill in October 2003 (ENDS Report 353, p 53 ).

Inspired by Ireland's plastic bag tax, he hoped to charge 10 pence per bag to reduce use by 90%. Scottish consumers use around one billion plastic bags a year.

In spite of a warm reception for the Bill from fellow MSPs, it has taken Mr Pringle nearly two years' work to introduce it. It was finally put before the Scottish Parliament on 17 June.

The final Bill differs little from the original proposal. Customers would have to pay 10 pence for every plastic bag they use. The list of exemptions from the charge are extensive, but include: small bags (below 30cm by 30cm) used to hold fruit, vegetables and other unpackaged food; bags sold for use elsewhere such as bin liners; and bags designed for re-use provided they cost at least 50 pence.

The only major change from the original proposal involves biodegradable bags. These are no longer exempt from the charge, Mr Pringle deciding the point of the Bill is to cut waste, not to change the material plastic bags are made from.

Under the Bill, Scotland's 27,800 shops will have to register with their local authority if they are to continue supplying bags. Based on Ireland's experience, Mr Pringle estimates only half will do so.

Shops that do register will have to submit returns to the local authority stating the number of bags sold, then pay them the levy. This must happen "not less than monthly". Shops will also be required to print the levy on receipts.

Anyone who fails to impose the charge will be subject to a maximum £1,000 fine, plus £100 "for each occasion" a customer is not charged.

Local authorities will have to ring-fence any revenues from the levy and spend them on environmental projects such as recycling initiatives.

In spite of the changes the Bill could cause to Scotland's retail landscape, Mr Pringle estimates its costs will be minimal.

Local authorities will save money by not sending bags to landfill - an estimated £19,204 a year in the case of Edinburgh City Council. While the administrative costs to businesses, "will be more than offset by the reduced costs involved in the need to purchase plastic bags, the increased sales of reusable bags...and interest gained on the money collected."

Retailers would save over £4 million a year from not buying bags, according to the Bill's explanatory notes.

Conspicuous by its absence from those notes, however, is an environmental impact assessment of the Bill. The British Retail Consortium and Carrier Bag Consortium have regularly highlighted potential impacts, especially if it causes a major switch to paper bags, which, the Consortium says, "consume eight times the raw material and three times the energy".

The Scottish Executive has commissioned AEA Technology to undertake a study looking at impacts on the environment, consumers, businesses and local authorities. It is due to be published in the next month.

Days after the Bill was introduced, the BRC announced it is working with the Government's Waste and Resources Action Programme on two "reusable bag pilot projects" in Edinburgh and Bristol this September.

Part-funded by WRAP's waste minimisation innovation fund, the projects will "raise consumer awareness of reusable bags and train staff at retail stores to reduce the number of carrier bags handed out."

A project in Australia involving customer leaflets reduced bag use by 26%, according to WRAP's Richard Swannell.

WRAP has also awarded more than £130,000 to ASDA and Ecomedia to research ways of changing the way customers use carrier bags.

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