In the last decades various countries have introduced legislation to incentivise people to reduce the number of carrier bags they use. Countries have either chosen to ban the use or introduce a levy on plastic bags.
On the 1st October 2011, Wales became the first political and legislative jurisdiction in the UK to introduce a mandatory charge on all single use carrier bags. The Single Use Carrier Bag Charge (Wales) Regulation 2010 was introduced utilising powers conferred by sections 77 and 90 of, and Schedule 6 to, the Climate Change Act 2008.
So why do governments believe that it needs to introduce legislation to influence the public to reduce the number of carrier bags they use? In the UK alone, each year there are approximately 6.8 billion plastic bags handed out by retail shops (as of 2010). In 2010, an estimated 480 million carrier bags were used by shoppers from the major supermarkets in Wales alone (WG, Consultation, 2010).
The manufacture and transportation of carrier bags result in a large amount of harmful emissions. Even when plastic bags photo-degrade in landfill, the plastic can take between 500 and 1,000 years to degrade, and there is often a risk that the remaining toxic particles can enter the food chain if they are ingested by unsuspecting animals.
Whilst Wales is the first administration in the UK to introduce such a charge, there is a growing interest in other jurisdictions to consider the role of a mandatory charge on carrier bags and the impact it may have on achieving environmental aims. Earlier this year, the European Commission launched a consultation (which closed in August 2011) on whether the European Union should tax or altogether ban plastic carrier bags, as part of a new consultation designed to tackle rising levels of plastic waste. The consultation also considered options on increasing the visibility of biodegradable packaging products, and boosting the biodegradability requirements for packaging.
Both Northern Ireland and Scotland are now looking at whether or not to charge for plastic bags. In Scotland the consultation will begin sometime in the autumn of 2011, whilst the Northern Ireland consultation process closes in October 2011. David Cameron has now announced that he expects supermarkets to significantly reduce the quantity of carrier bags they distribute and if they do not then the Coalition Government may consider introducing a ban on plastic bags.
Are there any lessons to be learnt from the Welsh experience?
Wales has departed from the standard charging model applied in countries like Ireland where the charge applies solely to plastic bags, by extending the charge to include paper, biodegradable and recyclable carrier bags.
Paper carrier bags, which are often considered a more environmentally friendly alternative, also have environmental consequences as much of the pulp used for paper carrier bags is virgin pulp as it is considered stronger. Paper bags that come from a renewable source and are biodegradable require more energy than plastic bags to manufacture and transport. Extending the charge to also include paper means that the Welsh Government has chosen forward thinking by not merely trying to reduce plastic bag use but tackle the environmental issues raised by paper bags as well.
However, the legislation also contains a number of exemptions and perhaps confusingly for both shops and the public, exempt bags can become non-exempt depending on what good is put in them. For example, bags for prescription goods are exempt. However, if in a single transaction a customer also buys a bottle of shampoo and uses the exempt bag, it is no longer exempt and the charge applies. These exemptions raise certain uncertainties for both retailers and customers.
The second departure is that the funds raised from the charge will not be returned to government but the shops covered by the charge are supposed to distribute the funds to charities, in particular environmental causes. However, it is the businesses that are responsible for all administration of the funds and distribution to charities. Many feel that this is an unnecessary burden on shops, particularly small shops and concerns were raised about the administrative burden placed on small businesses to keep records of number of bags issued and account for how the proceeds have been used. In July 2011, the new Environment Minister, John Griffiths, announced a policy change which excluded companies with less than 10 employees this administrative duty in order to remove the burden. This seemed a reasonable alteration but was one that should perhaps have been dealt with during the two consultation periods rather than 8 months after the legislation was passed.
The introduction of the legislation has met numerous challenges. Originally set to be introduced in May of this year, the commencement date was delayed until October after representations from businesses and the minimum level was reduced from 7 pence to 5 pence.
Through the introduction of the mandatory charge, the Welsh Government expects a 90% reduction in carrier bag use as they hope that the public will either take their own bag or a reusable Bag for Life. They refer to the success in the Republic of Ireland where the number of carrier bags reduced substantially from an estimated 328 per person to 21 per person overnight. However, in Ireland the initial cost in 2002 was nearly double the five pence minimum introduced in Wales and today is nearly four times that cost. Ireland have gone even further and under the Waste Management (Landfill Levy) Regulations 2011, the plastic bag levy can be amended once in any financial year by the application of the consumer price index plus an additional 10% at the discretion of the Minister for the Environment. The ceiling for the plastic bag levy is set at €0.70 or 61pence.
So for many people the question now is whether 5 pence is really enough to make shoppers change how they shop and therefore how much of a leader is the Welsh Government’s new charge? However, it is yet to be seen whether the aim of a 90% reduction will be achieved and Wales will follow in the footsteps of Ireland, particularly when the charge is only a quarter of that of the Irish levy.