UK urged to levy plastic bag charge

Rui Vieira/PA

A year after it introduced a compulsory 5p charge for all plastic carrier bags, the Welsh government is urging the rest of the UK to follow its lead to help the environment.

So can we expect a decision on a similar move in England?

Since the charge was introduced in October 2011, carrier bag use in Wales has reduced by as much as 96% in some retail sectors and the charge is now supported by around 70% of people in Wales, according to a survey recently released by the government.

"One year on from the introduction of our 5p bag charge it is obvious that it has made a real difference to shopping habits of people here in Wales," said the Welsh environment minister, John Griffiths.

"I think the Welsh experience proves that if you want to effectively reduce carrier bag use, a charge really is the best way to go."

Delayed decision
Despite initial resistance, Tesco, Sainsbury's and Asda have successfully introduced the levy in their Welsh stores.

Calling for it to be rolled out throughout the UK, Giffiths said: "I can see no reason why the charge wouldn't work just as well in other parts of the UK."

Back in June, the UK environment minister, Richard Benyon, promised that the government would make a decision on a charge for single use bags in England before the end of 2012.

The majority of shoppers back the move, according to a poll last month in which three quarters (75%) said they would try to cut down on the use of new plastic bags if there were a 5p charge on them.

Ireland introduced a plastic bag tax in 2002, Northern Ireland is set to start a 5p charge in 2013 and Scotland is considering a minimum charge of 5p.

Charity benefit
Figures from the Welsh government suggest UK shoppers could go through as many as 60 bags a month.

The charge has benefited Welsh charities as Welsh Government policy demands that proceeds from the charge be passed on to good causes.

Monies raised from the levy at supermarkets and high street chains have gone onto benefit the RSPB, Keep Wales Tidy, Macmillan Cancer Care and Save the Children, among others.

Mounting pressure
The Liberal Democrats backed the introduction of a bag levy in England at their recent party conference and pressure is now mounting on ministers in Westminster to make a decision.

Plastic bag use in the UK actually increased in 2011, with Government waste body WRAP reporting a 5.4% hike in the number of bags used by consumers.

The British Retail Consortium (BRC) attributes the hike to a change in shopping habits due to the recession, with families doing several smaller grocery shops instead of one large one, and switching away from travelling by car in favour of public transport.

Compulsory charge
In order to make a significant difference, the BRC says the government will need to consider a compulsory levy.

Bob Gordon, head of environment at the BRC, said: "It's no surprise the use of a bag charge in Wales has reduced the number of bags taken by consumers there. If other governments see reducing the use of carrier bags as a priority, they will have to take a lead and go beyond voluntary measures.

"Any legislation should be as similar as possible to what's in place in Wales and we are already working with other governments as they develop their plans."
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