The introduction of a modest 5p levy on plastic bags has been credited with reducing plastic bag use in Scotland by an astonishing 147 million in only one year. That is scarcely a surprise for those of us convinced that public opinion was running well ahead of government action but welcome all the same.
That is fewer bags scattered in trees and bushes, choking animals or clogging up drains. It is fewer bags contributing to the £14 million landfill bill in Edinburgh. Good news all round.
And it also means that it is time for Scotland’s capital to show a lead in promoting alternatives to plastic bags. Back in 2007, shortly after I was first elected as a Green councillor in Edinburgh, I proposed that the city follow the lead of other forward-looking cities, from Italy to the west coast of the US, by adopting plastic-bag free status. At the time, sadly, the advice from officers was that it was all too tricky.
Later, in 2011, just before I became a Green MSP, I secured backing for a programme of re-usable bags, both as an alternative to plastic and as an excellent way to promote the city. I am sure the city’s promotion agency, Marketing Edinburgh, would be excited by the prospect of thousands of visitors departing the city with their “This is Edinburgh” re-usable bags.
Equally, I am sure that our local shops and high streets would welcome the forging of a stronger identity which local re-usable bags could bring.
Now, I have heard all the arguments against action; that plastic bags, by weight, are only a tiny part of the waste stream. It is argued, rightly, that there are bigger issues to tackle: public sector service cuts, fuel poverty and childcare.
That’s right and I will be doing what I can to highlight each of these areas too.
But it is a bit like saying that one should never tackle a more specific issue unless one can do address the strategic things. Plastic bags are an important symbol of a throwaway society. Once people starting thinking about bags, they start thinking about other aspects of that society too.
So now is the time for Edinburgh to build on the success of the 5p levy and seek to go plastic-bag free.
• Alison Johnstone is Green MSP for Lothian.