Bag policy should be binned

11th February 2014 Posted by

The UK has had a penchant for over-complicating environmental legislation.

The Landfill Allowance Trading Scheme (scrapped in 2013), the Carbon Reduction Commitment (supposedly simplified in 2012) and most notoriously, the Electricity Market Reform legislative package – described by one commentator as “a scheme which is liable to disintegrate under the weight of its own complexity” – spring to mind.

The latest addition to this unfortunate list is Defra’s proposal to levy a five pence charge on single-use plastic bags – which has already been panned by the Environmental Audit Committee as being “unnecessarily complicated” and in “a complete mess”.

Rather than keeping the scheme simple, Defra has opted for a host of exemptions which make no environmental sense and which have not been welcomed by retailers.

The main issue is one of muddled objectives.

Defra says that the policy is not based on the need to reduce carbon emissions but, in the same breath, claims that the objective is to “reduce the environmental, resource and economic cost of … production”.

The carbon footprint is one of the principal environmental burdens of carrier bag production and their use.

Defra’s own data shows that paper bags have a larger carbon footprint than plastic bags, yet carrier bags made from other materials are exempt from the levy.

There is nothing to prevent retailers from offering free paper bags (or for that matter, free bags made from any material other than plastic) as a substitute. On top of this, the proposals also exempt retailers with less than 250 employees from charging the levy.

All this flies in the face of Defra’s claim that “the main benefits of this policy are in terms of a reduction of litter on land and at sea”.

If this was the case, the scheme would have been designed to reduce overall carrier bag use – that is, placing a levy on all single-use carrier bags irrespective of type, and including all retail outlets.

The exemption for single-use biodegradable plastic carrier bags is particularly puzzling.

These bags can litter just as effectively as fossil-based plastic bags, taking weeks if not months to degrade in the environment. They are practically impossible to distinguish from fossil-based plastic bags at the point of sale, and also impair recycling of fossil-based plastic bags when they are collected as a mixed load.

If Defra is listening, their proposals should go back to the drawing board. When Wales and Scotland have managed to put forward sensible schemes, there is no reason why Defra cannot follow suit.

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