Plastic bag firms lay it on thick over Scottish levy

A consultation on a proposed tax on plastic carrier bags in Scotland has ended amidst signals that some Ministers view the idea sympathetically even as bag suppliers were deriding it as based on "wholly unsubstantiated conjecture."

The consultation was initiated by Liberal Democrat MSP Mike Pringle. Last October, he received the necessary support in the Scottish Parliament to entitle him to introduce a Member's Bill imposing a levy on plastic carrier bags.

There is room for such a levy under the devolution settlement because, while taxation is generally a reserved matter dealt with by Whitehall, the Scottish Parliament can legislate for taxes to fund local authority expenditure, as long as the revenues are used in the area where they were collected.

Mr Pringle's Bill would oblige local authorities to collect a levy from businesses for each plastic bag given away to customers. Businesses would be required to pass the levy on directly to the customer at the point of sale.

After deducting their running costs, local authorities would have to ring-fence the revenues and spend them on environmental projects such as litter clean-up or community recycling.

The inspiration for the Bill was the Irish plastic bag tax introduced in March 2002 at a rate of 15 cents - about 10 pence.

Consumption of plastic bags in Ireland fell rapidly by more than 90%, and if this happened in Scotland then consumption would drop to 100 million bags per year. At a levy rate of 10p, the annual revenues would amount to £10 million.

Mr Pringle's consultation paper argues that a levy would promote public awareness of the environmental concerns raised by plastic bags, focus consumers' and retailers' minds on reuse and alternatives to the throwaway bag, and reduce litter.

The paper has drawn an angry response from the Carrier Bag Consortium, a group of bag suppliers formed in the wake of the Irish levy to fight any proposals for a similar scheme in the UK.

The CBC accused Mr Pringle of peddling "junk science". Its chairman, Barry Turner, said: "There is not a single justification for a carrier bag tax in Scotland. It will be bad for the environment and bad for Scottish jobs and businesses."

Promising to set out the facts, the CBC said that official research has shown "conclusively" that 80% of householders reuse plastic carrier bags at least once, making them more intensively reused than any consumer disposable product. Indeed, by the end of its response the CBC is claiming that 80% of households use carrier bags "time and again" before disposal.

The origin of that 80% figure is not disclosed, although a possible source is an opinion poll carried out for the Government's now defunct Are You Doing Your Bit? campaign in 2000. This, however, was a survey of people's preferences, and such surveys are notorious for overstating what people do in practice.

Some of the CBC's assertions appear to be based on no more than anecdotal evidence about the consequences of the Irish tax. It says, for example, that double or triple-bagging is now common among customers who have switched to paper bags, and claims that the tax has also resulted in an increase in shoplifting.

The CBC lays it on thick, arguing that the Bill "clearly aims to legislate against the disadvantaged...such as the elderly, infirm, low income groups and those without motor vehicles at their disposal, all of whom would have great difficulty in coping with less convenient shopping carriers."

The group also contends that "serious health and safety issues" are raised by encouraging people to reuse their carrier bags for shopping, since they may have been contaminated on their first trip by household chemicals or meat residues which could pose health hazards to consumers.

Retreating to a position that no industry has occupied before, the CBC argues that carrier bags play a vital role in safeguarding public health from animal faeces. It estimates that no fewer than 700 million plastic carrier bags per year - 70% of sales - are used to dispose of pet droppings. Among these are 160 million bags which are used to comply with recent dog fouling laws and are therefore protecting children using public spaces from serious health risks. The source of these figures is not given.

Amidst this blizzard of facts and assertions some important environmental messages are in danger of getting lost. Carrier bags account for less than 0.3% of the municipal waste stream, and so a tax which reduces their use will not have much impact on landfill or litter volumes.

The Irish experience also suggests that there has been a major switch to paper bags. The CBC argues that a tax will have a "devastating negative effect on the environment" since paper bags "consume eight times the raw material [and] three times the energy, create twice the levels of air pollution, waste fifty times as much process water [and] have six times the weight and ten times the volume."

Exactly what is being compared with what is not explained, but the underlying point - that proponents of a tax need to be aware of its likely impact on product substitution and then assess the environmental effects on a life-cycle basis - remains valid.

As for Mr Pringle's belief that a carrier bag levy would be "good for business", the CBC counters that it would "close or seriously endanger the future of packaging business across Scotland and the UK." No evidence has been provided by either side to back up its claims.

Spurious arguments have, indeed, been the order of the day. In an initial response to Mr Pringle's proposal last October, the director of the Scottish Retail Consortium, Fiona Moriarty, expressed concern about Scotland becoming a "guinea pig" for a carrier bag levy.

She added that the tax "could potentially put Scotland's retail sector at a disadvantage to the rest of the UK. As the retail sector is of huge significance to Scotland's fragile economy, this could potentially be bad news for consumers and jobs."

The consultation ended in May, and shortly afterwards a source close to Environment Minister Ross Finnie reported that, after discussing the issue with Irish officials, he was now interested in supporting Mr Pringle's Bill - provided the administrative costs to local authorities were justified by the revenues.

Meanwhile, Economic Secretary John Healey has restated the Treasury's position that there are "no plans" for a UK-wide tax on plastic carrier bags. In a parliamentary answer, he said that since these account for less than 1% of the municipal waste stream, a tax on its own "would be unlikely to have any significant impact on volumes of waste."