Mike Read: ‘Carrot and stick’ needed to curb our use of plastic bags

THE trouble with our “sound-bite” society is that in putting catchy labels on issues is that the message can be skewed. In the case of the “plastic bag tax” mean that something that has the potential to give significant environmental benefit gets completely misrepresented and wrongly colours opinion from the start.

Working in the financial community I understand taxes. This, however, is a payment for use of an item which is completely optional given people can choose to use their own long-life bags – consumer choice in action.

Driving behavioural change usually benefits from a combined carrot-and-stick approach. Applying such “sticks” as a usage payment clearly work. Wales has already introduced this measure and has seen immediate results. Without it, inertia sets in. The rest of the UK saw a 5 per cent rise in the use of plastic bags – the first in five years – in 2010-11.

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The arguments about additional financial pressures on shoppers are understood, but without labouring the point about needing to pay being a matter of choice, there are clearly options available, particularly to the retailers, who are constantly trumpeting their green credentials, to help.

Benefits through retailer reward schemes are a normal part of the consumer experience. Free “bags for life” could easily fall into that category.

This would allow everybody to take ownership of the problem and sort it, and means that measures, such as outright bans (as have been introduced in Italy), are not needed. It is very easy to make excuses not to do things – opponents who say Scotland is too wet to use paper bags have clearly not been to Wales recently.

A carrot in the form of a usage payment (not a tax) with assistance to support consumers in these activities is a sensible plan which can deliver results and get rid of the scourge of the plastic bag.

To this end we should stop inflaming public concerns by keeping on using phrases such as “plastic bag tax” and actually support the Scottish Government’s efforts and its Zero Waste Scotland plans.

• Mike Read is a director with the Energy, Environment and Sustainability team at business advisers, Grant Thornton