Nick Clegg’s recent announcement of a five pence charge for single use carrier bags in England from Autumn 2015 was definitely welcome, even if a cynic might describe it as jumping before being pushed. Until recently, England seemed to be dragging its feet compared with Wales, which introduced a charge in 2011, closely followed by Northern Ireland, and with Scotland planning to introduce a charge in 2014. The indications are that the charges have been extremely effective in reducing the use of plastic carrier bags, but I’m concerned that the scheme announced by Clegg is being set up to fail.
The need for action on plastic bags was emphasised earlier this year when the European Commission published three studies looking into the composition and sources of marine litter in European seas. In a chapter integrating the results it noted that:
“Plastics are the most abundant debris found in the marine environment and comprise more than half of marine litter in European Regional Seas. More than half of the plastic fraction is composed of plastic packaging waste with plastic bottles and bags being predominant types of plastic packaging…
Therefore, measures within a strategy to close the largest loopholes in the plastic packaging cycle should target plastic bottles and plastic bags.”
Clegg’s announcement at the Liberal Democrat conference certainly targets plastic bags. However, two important exemptions the government is proposing seem set to undermine the scheme’s impact.
Cutting corner shops
The first, a proposed exemption from the charge for businesses with fewer than 250 employees, is arguably the less important. Whether this is based on a genuine assessment of the likely impacts on small retailers, or simply a concession to bring “growth at all costs” elements of the coalition on board, is not clear. However, a number of possible consequences can be foreseen.
At the margin, the lure of free carrier bags may encourage some shoppers to favour small retailers – good news for corner shops and the like. However, there may also be a tendency for people to ‘stock up’ on carrier bags during these visits. While single use carrier bags may be free at the point of sale, they do have to be paid for by the retailer. The extent to which small retailers benefit from the exemption (relative to the current situation) would therefore be determined by the balance between any increase in sales and the cost of providing any additional bags.
Alternatively, it might be that exempt shops decide to implement a charge themselves. From autumn 2015, paying for bags will be seen as the norm in England, so their customers might not blink at being charged 5p. However, voluntary charging is unlikely to be universal, and where no charge is levied, no change in behaviour is likely. The exemption for small businesses can therefore be expected to mean that the reduction in bag usage will not be as significant as that seen in Wales.
Including small retailers in the charge would seem to have quite a lot in its favour, especially for the small businesses themselves. Given that the charge is not a tax, and will not go to government, they will have a choice as to what to do with the revenue. Larger retailers are being pressed to hand the proceeds over to charity, but there is nothing to stop small retailers pocketing the cash. I doubt that the administrative costs of charging a customer 5p for a bag, at a point when they are already making a payment, are anywhere near this level.
Applying the charge universally would also seem fairer. One of my favourite comments from a retailer about the difference between ‘voluntary approaches’ – much favoured by the current government – and regulation, is that at least regulation is ‘equally unfair to all’. If small businesses were required to participate, it seems inconceivable that they would be out of pocket, and everyone would benefit from the expected reduction in litter.
The small business exemption seems likely to result in the worst of both worlds – some corner shops feeling compelled to supply free carrier bags for fear that their customers will go elsewhere (leaving them worse off than under a compulsory charge), and a smaller reduction in plastic bag litter than might otherwise have been achieved.
The second proposed exemption may be more significant. Defra’s press release states that:
“The government will also incentivise biodegradable bags. A new high standard for these products will be developed with manufacturers. Bags which meet that standard will be exempt from the charge.”
While the details of this standard are yet to be determined, there is a touch of irony here. The UK recently challenged an Italian law banning the sale of non-biodegradable plastic bags, claiming a breach of internal market rules. While a ban is obviously very different from a charge, it would be interesting to understand from Defra the basis upon which it is felt that such an exemption could be justified. Notwithstanding the fact that biodegradable bags tend to be more expensive for retailers, encouraging their use would certainly seem to inhibit the reduction in terrestrial and marine litter that is sought.
Whether a plastic bag is biodegradable or not makes no difference in terms of its contribution to the disamenity impact of litter. A biodegradable bag looks no less ugly when it is blowing around your local neighbourhood or half buried in the sand on your favourite beach. It is also just as problematic when ingested by marine fauna. While under controlled composting conditions some types of biodegradable plastics may break down fully within a matter of weeks, degradation is much slower in seawater.
The French research institute IFREMER has found that in the Bay of Biscay most of the waste items found on the seabed were plastic (92%) and of those 94% were plastic bags. This would suggest that plastic bags do not remain at the surface, or in the water column, where they might be expected to pose the greatest risk to marine fauna – including turtles, which confuse them for jellyfish – but instead sink to the bottom over time. If biodegradable bags broke down before reaching the bottom, there might be a small reduction in risk to some forms of marine wildlife. However, there does not seem to be any evidence that this is what occurs.
Mr Clegg’s announcement is an encouraging sign that England is finally catching up with the devolved administrations. The straightforward policy of a universal charge for all types of carrier bags has been shown to be popular, harmless to business and effective in cutting the number of plastic bags entering circulation – although it will take several years before the wider environmental impacts can be properly assessed. It is therefore a little mysterious that the proposals for England should include these two devilish details, which leave UK-wide carrier bag policy dangerously close to snatching defeat from the jaws of a turtle victory.