Jane Bradley: Plastic bag ban better than a tax

Six months ago, I still owned a “bag of bags”. A large plastic bag, filled with dozens of other carrier bags and stuffed in a drawer in my kitchen.

Carrier bags will cost Scottish consumers a minimum of 5p from this autumn. Picture: Getty
Carrier bags will cost Scottish consumers a minimum of 5p from this autumn. Picture: Getty

As a former environment correspondent of this newspaper, I find this un-green fact embarrassing to admit. But in recent months, my household has made a massive effort to cut down.

We have to – we need to train ourselves in preparation for October, when the value of that bag of bags would have rocketed to about £25 and I would have been tempted to start a black market trade.

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

For, in case you missed it, from the autumn, new Scottish Government laws will mean that any carrier bag used at any store will cost the consumer a minimum of 5p – a fee which will be passed on to charities rather than government coffers.

This is a neccessary move. We use more carrier bags per head in Scotland than any other part of the UK, clocking up a total of 750 million every year.

Some retailers already have their own version of the plastic bag tax – it costs 5p to take a bag from B&Q, for example, cue numerous Charlie Chaplin-style moments of balancing paint tins on each other and oh-so-hilarious car park topplings.

The solution is that we just need to be more organised. I rarely visit any shop in a car, which makes it slightly more difficult to ensure I have a shopping bag, should the need for a pint of milk and loaf of bread on the way home from work arise. Of course, in desperate times, I can just fork out that 5p – and swallow the resulting environmental guilt.

Northern Ireland has already pioneered a similar law to the one set to be introduced north of the Border – as has Wales. England is the slowcoach of the plastic-bag revolution, planning to bring in a charge some time after the 2015 general election.

In California, however, lawmakers have recently unveiled plans to go one step further and plan to outlaw plastic carrier bags entirely. Instead, customers will have to provide their own mode of transporting goods – or pay a dime for a reusable “bag for life” plastic bag (far greener to manufacture) or a paper version.

An attempt to pass a bill banning the bags failed last year amid opposition from plastic bag manufacturers and concerns that the move would eliminate jobs.

But rather than giving up, the state’s government has done something quite impressive. They have come up with an actual solution to the problem.

They have told plastic bag manufacturers – of which there are numerous in California alone, apparently – that they will pay $2m out of funds generated from recycling, for their staff to be retrained, or to re-engineer their operations to make reusable plastic bags which do meet the new criteria.

Scotland has always tried to be ahead of the curve when it comes to environmental issues – Alex Salmond has long claimed to want to lead the way in terms of renewable energy creation, and carbon reduction targets have been significantly higher here than south of the Border for some time.

In answer to a direct question as to whether it would consider a more extreme plan, as California has done, the Scottish Government muttered something vaguely about “sharing experience with” and “learning from” other administrations.

The Californian project makes economic sense too. There, where residents use 14 billion single-use plastic bags a year – 19 times that of Scotland – they pay $25m in tax to send them to landfill.

Comparable figures for Scotland are not available, but it would not be unreasonable to suggest that the cost to the Scottish taxpayer could be in the region of $1.3m – or £780,000.

Official figures provided by Wrap Scotland claim the Scottish legislation will result in an estimated £11m per annum benefit to the environment, including cuts generated by a reduction in air and water pollution.

However, if the bags did not exist at all, that cost would surely be significantly reduced further.

It is high time the Scottish Government aimed to leapfrog the other British nations to follow California’s lead.

We might have been slower in reducing our plastic bag consumption in the beginning, but we now have the chance to again lead the way in a shining green beacon of light.