Resource Use

England’s plastic bag scheme ‘complete mess’


Ministers at the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) have made a ‘complete mess’ of the plans to introduce a plastic bag charge in England, the Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) has said.

Speaking after the release of the EAC’s report into plastic bags, its 11th report of 2013/14  today (6 February), EAC Chair Joan Walley MP said that although the UK government’s plans to charge five pence for plastic carrier bags from 2015 could have ‘significant environmental benefits in terms of lower carbon emissions, resource use and litter’, they are ‘unnecessarily complicated’ and based ‘more on wishful thinking than hard evidence’.

England’s plans to introduce a five-pence levy on single-use plastic bags from ‘autumn 2015’ were first announced in September 2013 by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg in a bid to reduce plastic bag use and litter. It followed on from statistics issued by the Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP) that found England (at the time the only remaining UK nation without plans to introduce a plastic bag levy) had the UK’s largest increase in plastic bag use in 2012.

Unlike similar schemes set up in other parts of the UK, however, (such as Wales’s plastic bag levy that has seen bag use drop by 76 per cent), the UK government outlined it would not include reusable ‘bags for life’ or paper bags, nor would the levy apply to organisations with fewer than 250 employees. Further, in the November 2013 consultation on the subject, government proposed exempting biodegradable plastic bags from the charge.

‘Levy should apply to all bag types and retailers’

It is these exemptions that the EAC has said make the plans ‘unnecessarily complicated’.

In preparing its report into England’s plastic bag charge, the EAC took oral evidence from: members of the waste and resources industry; the Welsh Government; a behavioural psychologist, who evaluated the impact of the Welsh scheme; WRAP; the British Retail Consortium; a member of the ‘break the bag habit’ campaign; and Defra Minister Dan Rogerson MP. The report itself outlines suggestions by which the ban could be better implemented.

It reads: ‘The charge scheme that the government is proposing in England, with additional exemptions for small retailers and paper and biodegradable bags, would be too complex, unnecessarily confusing for shoppers, and less effective than the Welsh scheme. The proposed [five-pence] charge should apply to all bag types and all retailers…

‘There is evidence that charging for carrier bags leads to fewer bags being discarded as litter. The government should focus on making the scheme simple and coherent with other policies to reinforce other positive environmental behaviours. It should take steps to set a minimum price for ‘bags for life’ at a level which incentivises their reuse.’

It adds that the proposed exemption for biodegradable bags ‘risks damaging the UK plastics recycling industry, could undermine the reduction in bag use, and is not necessary’. Further, the EAC said that the policy appeared ‘rushed’ and that the decision to exempt biodegradable bags was taken ‘before reviewing existing evidence or considering the concerns of all stakeholders’. ‘It should not proceed’, it concludes.

As well as qualms with the exemptions, the EAC also criticises Defra’s evidence gathering in relation to the environmental consequences of the ban.

It reads: ‘The government has multiple aims for the plastic bag charging policy, including reducing emissions, waste, and litter, but has not adequately determined their relative priority. Before proceeding it should have undertaken a structured appraisal of the evidence on the potential environmental gains associated with each objective and the extent to which the charge and type of bag would secure these gains, along with an assessment of their associated risks and wider impacts. It needs to ensure its analysis is robust and accurate.’

Other suggestions for government include:

  • including paper bags in the levy;
  • reviewing the level of the charge after two years to assess if an increase is necessary;
  • introducing legislation to ensure that retailers sell ‘bags for life’ at an ‘appropriate higher price than the charge for single-use bags, taking into account their greater emissions impact’;
  • seeing all VAT placed on the charge (around one pence for every five pence) spent on ‘new environmental projects and on monitoring the impact of the scheme’;
  • including small retailers in the scheme, but exempting those with 10 employees or fewer from detailed reporting requirements;
  • setting clear rules for transparent reporting and for retailers to publicise prominently in store where the funds are going;
  • ensuring ‘tough sanctions’ exist to prevent retailers having a conflict of interest about which charities are supported; and
  • ensuring that retailers collect and submit data on bag reuse, and monitor how the charge affects wider behaviours.

‘Decisions based on wishful thinking’

Speaking of the plastic bag charge, the Chair of the Committee, Joan Walley MP, said: “Ministers have managed to make a complete mess of their planned carrier bags charge by making it unnecessarily complicated.

“Carrier bags litter our streets and harm wildlife, and the government is right to want to reduce their use. But Defra seems to have made decisions about the design of this scheme that were based more on wishful thinking than hard evidence.”

She added: “Biodegradable bags are not as green as they first sound. We heard that they can do as much harm to wildlife as normal plastic bags and could cause big problems for the UK recycling industry, which would have trouble separating and processing the different material.”

Walley concluded that before government reaches ‘the check-out’ with the policy, it needs to “drop the exemptions and keep it simple to help shoppers do the right thing”.

She added: “It’s not too late to start listening and to re-think these flawed plans.”

A Defra spokesperson responded to EAC's report, saying: “We want to reduce plastic bag usage – but it shouldn’t come at the cost of burdening small businesses who can choose whether or not to charge their customers.

“Paper bags make up only a small proportion of carrier bags and break down naturally. Biodegradable bags will only be exempt if they are genuinely biodegradable – currently such a bag does not exist.”

The ‘ball is firmly in the government’s court’

Several commentators have welcomed the EAC’s recommendations, with Keep Britiain Tidy Chief Executive Phil Barton saying: “We are delighted today that the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee has agreed with us and are calling for the charge to be implemented with no exemptions. This is great news and now the ball is firmly in the government’s court, who now need to implement the charge as soon and as simply as possible so that communities in England can start benefitting from a positive measure that will improve the environment just like it has done in Wales.”

Likewise, Friends of the Earth Resource Campaigner Michael Warhurst commented: “The government lacks any ambition or clue when it comes to increasing reuse and recycling, and slashing waste in England. It must follow in the footsteps of Wales and Scotland, who have not only successfully introduced plastic bag levies, but have also set higher recycling targets.”

Concerns with committee recommendations

Several members of the industry have spoken out against some of EAC’s recommendations, however, with David Newman, President of the International Solid Waste Association (ISWA), saying: “Whilst we appreciate the committee’s point that a catch-all charge is the most effective way to reduce total bag usage, it fails to note an exemption for home compostable bags would help significantly reduce food waste going to landfill. In addition, I remain concerned that this report has not undertaken assessment of the true percentage of plastic bags recycled in the UK, and Europe as a whole.

"We hope the committee will recognise the dual purpose of certified compostable bags when it reviews the government’s waste strategy.”

A spokesman for the Renewable Energy Assurance Ltd also voiced concern with the biodegradable bag suggestions, commenting: “These bags are produced from renewable resources such as maize starch or polylactic acid (PLA) and replace increasingly scarce and expensive polyolefin derived materials from the supply chain. 

“When used in the collection of organic wastes, these bags reduce the need for harsh cleaning chemicals, protect the health of the workforce and return their valuable constituent materials to the horticultural cycle. Increasing the use of these bags cannot cause harm to the environment.”

According to the EAC, over 8 billion disposable carrier bags are used in England each year, but charging for carrier bags could lead to fewer bags being littered. It points to figures in Ireland that show that before the implementation of the plastic bag ban, around five per cent of plastic bags issued were littered, a figure dropping to 0.2 per cent once the levy was brought in.

Read the EAC’s report on England's proposed plastic bag levy.