Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Plastic carrier bag tax in the UK- A step in the right direction

Plastic bag pollution is a grave issue  that threatens our environmental health . We have covered the potential damages inflicted by plastics in some of our earlier posts Most plastic bags are non-biodegradable with an incredibly long life (approximately 300 -1000 years). Consequently they are ubiquitous. Discarded plastic bags often end up on trees or in the waterways where they affect wildlife. They have even been found in remote and pristine areas such as the Arctic and the Antarctic. 

Despite being  recyclable,  a large proportion of plastic bags end up in land fills. In the UK, plastic bags are not collected by the local authority for recycling, even though some supermarkets (especially the larger stores) have collection points. In the US only 12% of plastics belonging to the category including bags, sacks and wraps was recycled. Additionally, littering causes plastic bags to end up in places where they are a big menace.  In  aquatic environments where some discarded plastic bags end up,  they have been found to form dangerous bands around the necks of waterfowl and animals such as seals, dolphins, and turtles. Plastic bags are also often mistaken for food by fauna. Even the bio-degradable plastic bags that dissociate into pieces with time, are not truly degradable. During the decaying process , they are easily ingested by larger fauna causing morbidity and mortality. They can also be  eaten by smaller aquatic fauna including zooplankton; additionally, these bags degrade  in the water releasing toxic chemicals that leaches into the waterways- regardless of the means, they enter humans through  the food chain.

Last year the coalition government  in the UK confirmed plans  to levy  a 5 pence tax on single-use plastic carrier bags from 5 October 2015. The tax generated would be used to support charities. However, the charge on plastic bags would only apply to supermarkets and larger stores. A 5 pence tax has already been in use since 2011 and 2013 in other regions of the United Kingdom such as Wales and Northern Ireland respectively.A clear message from places all over the world where such taxes are implemented is the concomitant reduction in the usage of plastic bags upon tax introduction. In other words, whilst repeated messages to reduce use of plastic bags are ignored by us, taxes catch our attention. Simply put, we do not like to pay for the usage of plastic bags and will resort to other means when penalties are imposed.  In Northern Ireland, since the implementation of the 5 pence tax, plastic bag usage has declined by 80%.

With the advent of the 5p tax, more of us will be using reusable bags just like this eco-savvy shopper (Photo:R Stephen)

Figures published by the Waste and Resources Action Programme  show that 8.3 billions of plastic bags were  distributed in UK shops in 2013 which is an awful lot of plastic bags.
Many stores and supermarkets in the UK already have incentives for reducing the use of plastic bags. As early as 2007, Marks and Spencer started charging 5 pence for every standard food carrier bag (the store still gives away small plastic bags for free), with profits going to support charities such as the World Wildlife Fund, the Marine Conservation Society, and education projects in primary schools to promote marine life awareness. M&S also sells ‘Bag for Life’ bags, which are made of 100% recycled materials which would be replaced free charge  by the store when it wears out and would itself be  recycled. When the plan started M&S gave such bags for free. I have one of those still in use.

The legislation in England is a right step and  'every little counts',  but should also  be extended to cover other sources of plastic bag pollution such as retail stores currently exempted by the 5 pence tax. On a positive note, many shops have already started selling reusable bags and it is not uncommon to see customers using these for shopping.It is best to use reusable cloth/jute bags instead of reusable plastic bags.The damage inflicted by plastics is colossal and efforts should be made to eliminate the indiscriminate use of  these materials from all avenues as much as it is possible.

More shops have started selling reusable bags in the UK.(Photo-R Stephen)

This shopper is using a plastic bag  from elsewhere to shop in Tesco supermarket. (Photo-R Stephen) 

The question arises as to what to do with the plastic bags that we have lurking around in our houses. Firstly, reusing them as many times as possible is a good start. when it comes to the time, it can no longer be used, take it to your supermarket- many of  the larger stores have facilities for recycling not only plastic bags but also other  plastic packaging. If your store doesn't have a plastic bag recycling facility, request for one. you might be successful, especially as supermarkets have a commitment towards corporate social responsibility.

It is not uncommon to  find plastic bags littering  many of our streets, particularly our cities, where they are not only unsightly but dangerous due to the perils described above. Fixed Penalty Notices for littering exist in the UK , but it seems to be seldom enforced.Similar fines exist for owners of dogs who do not clean up the dog mess in public places. Signs like the one in the figure below are good deterrents, when coupled with the presence of dog wardens doing lightning -patrols in  the area .


Our streets should be provided with more signs that clearly convey the penalties of plastic bag littering . This could markedly help in our efforts towards curbing plastic bag litter. Awareness messages that encourage people to take their plastic bag litter home should be conveyed. The Tory party's election manifesto promises  to 'review the case for higher Fixed Penalty Notices for littering'.  It will be interesting to see whether the new government follows through with its promise in the coming days. Enforcing stricter penalties for plastic bag littering would be yet another step towards our goal of preventing plastic bags from being erroneously dispersed.

When it comes to plastic bags the following slogan is apt:
Replace, Reduce , Reuse and Recyle 
Replace plastic bags with Reusable bags ideally cloth/jute bags
Reduce  use of  plastic bags
Reuse plastic bags that you have as much as possible
Recycle plastic bags in appropriate collection points 

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