Ever since former Environment Minister Michael Meacher showed interest in the plastic bag tax introduced in Ireland two years ago, UK retailers have cast about for ways to improve the plastic bag’s green credentials and head off a similar tax being imposed on them.
Some, such as Tesco and the Co-op, have introduced degradable bags, claiming that they reduce litter, while Dixons has introduced bags made from recycled material.
He is researching the environmental impact of a tax to assuage the Scottish Executive’s fears that people would simply use paper bags instead of plastic ones, and expects to have a draft Bill ready by February.
B&Q introduced a 5p per bag charge in its 33 Scottish stores on 29 October, with all the money raised going to Keep Scotland Tidy, the anti-litter campaign. The DIY store hopes to reduce the seven million bags its Scottish stores gave out last year by 90%, saving it around £35,000 per year.
The pilot will last “a couple of months, maybe less”, said Lorian Coutts, B&Q’s director of communications and the charge’s initiator. If successful, it will be extended to the company’s 300 other UK stores.
Plastic bag use dropped by around 85% in the opening week, with most customers bringing their own bags. B&Q did not supply paper carrier bags as an alternative. Only “a couple” of people complained about the charge, said Ms Coutts. “I feel confident we will roll it out,” she said. “It’s just a matter of when.”
Ms Coutts was won round to the idea after a trip to Australia where she witnessed the benefits such schemes brought to the environment. “Plastic bags are only 1% of the waste stream, but they are the most visible sign of litter and they do a lot of harm to wildlife,” she said. “This is good for the environment.”
She admitted the company had to give the proceeds to charity to avoid a consumer backlash – but such donations bring retailers good publicity in any case.
The Scottish Retail Consortium offered no comment on B&Q’s decision, but is not expected to welcome it as it has already warned that it “could potentially put Scotland’s retail sector at a disadvantage to the rest of the UK” (ENDS Report 353, p 53 ).
Earlier this year, director Fiona Moriarty warned that such a tax would bring a switch to paper bags, leading to “severe environmental costs in terms of transport and fuel usage as they take up ten times the storage volume of plastic bags.”
“Retailers are increasing the use of degradable and biodegradable plastic bags and reducing the use of traditional plastic bags voluntarily,” she added.
IKEA is also piloting a plastic bag charge in Scotland. In April, it began a one-year trial at its Edinburgh store. Last year, the furniture store gave out three million bags.
Like B&Q, the company gives away fewer plastic bags than the major supermarkets and may feel that its customers are less worried about what happens to plastic carrier bags than those of other retailers.
Also charging five pence per bag, IKEA has so far seen a 95% drop in the number of bags it hands out and has raised over £10,000 for environmental charities.
The store also offers customers the opportunity to buy “a bag for life” for 75p – and have it replaced for free if it wears out – but most choose to use their own bags.