SNP to introduce 5p plastic bag charge from 2014

A man takes his shopping home in plastic carrier bags. Picture: Getty
A man takes his shopping home in plastic carrier bags. Picture: Getty
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SHOPPERS will be charged for carrier bags in Scotland from next year, under a long-awaited scheme to cut waste and raise millions of pounds for good causes.

• Scottish Government to press ahead with 5p plastic bag charge, to be introduced in October 2014

• Retailers will donate money made from bag sales to charity after covering their costs

From October 2014, consumers will have to pay at least 5p per “single-use” carrier in a bid to encourage people to re-use bags instead of throwing them away.

Retailers will have to donate the proceeds to charity, something ministers estimate could raise up to £5 million a year for groups including those working on tackling waste.

The charge will apply to bags “of any material, not just plastic”, so it could include paper bags used for takeaway products such as pasties from bakeries or food and drink put in paper bags at cafés.

The move, which follows the success of similar schemes in Wales and Northern Ireland, was welcomed by environmentalists. But some business groups say the new charge will create “costly additional red tape” for retailers.

Retailers, some of whom already run successful voluntary schemes, described the move as misguided and disjointed.

Environment secretary Richard Lochhead said the charge was vital in order to help reduce the 750 million bags used in Scotland every year.

He said: “Discarded carrier bags highlight our throwaway society. We use more carrier bags per head in Scotland than any other part of the UK and this is unsustainable.

“Carrier bags are a highly visible aspect of litter and we are taking decisive action to decrease their number. By reducing the amount being carelessly discarded, we can cut litter and its impact on our environment and economy.

“A small charge should also encourage us all to stop and think about what we discard and what can be re-used.”

He added: “We have seen elsewhere that carrier bag charging has been effective in encouraging people to reuse bags.”

The SNP government said it would publish a list of bags that will be exempt from the charge at a later date, but those used for prescriptions and certain fresh foods, such as fruit and unpackaged meat or fish, will be exempt.

A similar policy introduced in the Republic of Ireland in 2002, charging people up to 15c (13p) for supermarket carriers, has led to a 90 per cent drop in plastic bag use. It was also credited with cutting plastic bag litter by more than 95 per cent and raising millions of euros for charities.

There were similar results in Wales when a 5p charge was introduced in 2011, while Northern Ireland brought in a levy this year.

The move in Scotland is expected to lead to compulsory charging in England, where ministers are under pressure to follow the rest of the UK.

While the charge will be imposed by everyone from supermarkets and corner shops to takeaways and cafés, only large businesses will have to report the numbers of bags sold and how much they have given to charity. Smaller firms will not have to do this in order to minimise the administrative burden.

The Scottish Government said smaller businesses would, however, be expected to “make some form of public statement”, possibly in the form of a poster in their premises.

The SNP also insisted the charge was not a tax, as retailers would be expected to donate net proceeds to good causes after covering their costs.

Environment campaign group Friends of the Earth Scotland said businesses only had themselves to blame for the SNP introducing the charge.

Director Dr Richard Dixon said: “This shows a failure by companies to act responsibly and take adequate action on plastic bag use.

“They were warned ten years ago that if voluntary schemes didn’t do enough they would be forced to take action. It’s good that the minister has stood up to big business on this.”

WWF Scotland director Lang Banks said: “Green taxes can have a significant role to play in helping to change behaviour well beyond plastic bags. As Scotland moves forward to deliver a low-carbon future, a greater role for regulation rather than voluntary action will be required.”

The Scottish Retail Consortium (SRC) argued that voluntary efforts from a number of retailers that are already in place had already reduced carrier-bag use by more than 40 per cent.

SRC director Fiona Moriarty said: “The Scottish Government has decided that it wants further and faster reductions and the only way it can achieve this is through legislation. However, it is our view that if we focus solely on plastic bags, we are in danger of being distracted from much larger and more important issues around waste.

“We will be working with the Scottish Government to ensure the legislation is proportionate and as far as possible consistent across the UK to avoid confusion for customers and businesses.”

That view was echoed by CBI Scotland, whose spokesman said: “The plans for costly additional red tape in the form of an environmental levy on carrier bags, after significant success recently in reducing the use of plastic bags by voluntary means, will only make a difficult situation even tougher for retail businesses.

“Modest economic growth coupled with a continuing shift to internet shopping is making conditions challenging for the high street, which is already feeling the ill-effects of the Scottish Government’s £95m retail rates surcharge and its £36m rates levy on empty shops and other premises.”

Gordon Emslie, retail expert at Falkirk-based GNE Consultancy, said he was not surprised the charge was to be introduced in Scotland but warned: “If they go down the road of charging for paper bags too, which are generally seen as being recyclable anyway, that might be a harder message to sell to the consumer.”

Opposition parties gave a mixed response to the charge.

Labour agreed similar schemes had been “incredibly effective” in other parts of the UK but environment spokeswoman Claire Baker said: “I’m keen to ensure that we don’t increase the burden on our small shop owners and that revenue raised is used appropriately and in the best way.”

Tory environment spokesman Jamie McGrigor voiced concern about penalising consumers and said he would “prefer to see a carrot rather than stick approach for shoppers”.

Is the decision to charge for plastics bags a good move?

Yes - Lang Banks, director of WWF Scotland

Thanks to a combination of overwhelming public support and years of campaigning by groups like WWF, Scotland is set to follow Northern Ireland, Wales and other countries by introducing a charge for plastic bags.

The use of an estimated 750 million single-use plastic bags in Scotland every year has become symbolic of our throwaway attitude to resource use. As well as squandering non-renewable resources and polluting our environment, plastic bags put wildlife at risk and take decades to break down in landfills.

The thousands of plastic bags removed from our beaches by volunteers every year are just one very visible sign that we’ve got a big plastic bag problem.

It has been clear for some time that the industry’s voluntary approach has not been up to the job.

Manufacturers of plastic bags and a few of the least progressive retailers might complain. But they cannot deny the levy has proven to be a huge success in cutting plastic bag use. In Ireland, a 90 per cent reduction occurred and Wales saw a drop of up to 96 per cent after the first year of a levy.

Further afield, Taiwan, South Africa, Bangladesh, Denmark, Sweden, Germany and Italy have also implemented strategies to deal with plastic bags. Put simply, charging has been highly successful. It’s a measure that will be good for Scotland’s environment and wildlife.

No - Colin Borland,head of external affairs for the Federation of Small Businesses in Scotland

In EARLY 2014, Scotland’s business community will have to adapt to a slew of new waste disposal regulations. A bag levy introduced the same year will be an additional irritating headache for independent retailers.

As the country searches for means to revive the Scottish high street, the nation’s shopkeepers will have once again to change how they operate.

In itself, we don’t think this measure is going to put any retailers in Scotland out of business, but they are not exactly looking for new administrative tasks to carry out.

We also think the timing is odd, because we have so many new waste regulations coming in next year.

At the same time, we are keenly awaiting the outcome of the Scottish Government’s town-centre review as well.

This plastic bag charge is a standalone measure when what we really need is a coherent strategy for retailers in Scotland.

The big supermarkets distribute the vast majority of single-use bags.

The Federation of Small Businesses in Scotland would prefer to have seen a more targeted measure aimed at the source of the problem, rather than a blanket measure which will confuse and irritate food and non-food independent retailers.