Government’s plastic bag plan has been shot full of holes

Plastic bags are still hanging around years later. Adrian S Pye, CC BY-SA

After months of deliberation and consultations, the UK government’s long-awaited announcement about a plastic bag charge arrives, only for Defra to shoot it full of holes by opting to exempt retailers with fewer than 250 employees from the 5p charge.

This decision, which would mean tens of thousands of shops will continue to give out single-use plastic bags when the levy comes into effect in 2015, flies in the face of any logic. It has earned the government widespread condemnation, from those in parliament, from environmentalists, and even those stakeholders who would nominally gain from the move, such as the 33,000 members of the Association of Convenience Stores.

Research has substantially demonstrated that plastic bags are harmful to the environment. Lightweight bags are carried by winds to litter roadsides, trees, and streets throughout urban and rural landscapes. The thin plastic breaks down in the environment into tiny pieces that lead to the deaths of birds and marine life.

And it has also been shown without doubt that the billions of single-use plastic bags used each year – eight billion in 2012 in England alone – are produced at great cost. It is estimated that the amount of energy needed to make 12 single-use bags could power a car for a mile. Plastics and chemicals related to their manufacture have been linked to human health concerns too.

In our research published in the Journal of Business Ethics, we found that a joined up effort from the government, supermarkets and individuals was the way to bridge the behaviour-attitude gap that seems to persist in the world of consumers. Consumers like to think they are ethical but when pressed as to whether they owned or used a “bag for life” when out shopping, a significant number of them said they owned them, but would forgot to bring them with them.

A decision to levy a universal charge on for all bags in all shops would bring a swift end to such forgetfulness. This is not conjecture – it is exactly what has happened in Wales, Northern Ireland, and in the Irish Republic where there has been a very significant fall in the use of single-use bags. The levy in Ireland saw a drop of 85% within weeks after introduction in 2002, Wales saw a 76% decrease within a year of introduction of a levy in 2011, and in Northern Ireland a decrease of 80% within the first four months. The environment minister for Northern Ireland Mark Durkan has commended the people of the province and encouraged them to keep up the momentum.

Momentum – that is exactly the reason why we need all shops to be included in this levy. If there is confusion as to which shops will charge and which won’t, if there are loopholes excusing certain shops and not others, then this effort towards curbing pollution, energy use, and saving the environment will be severely curtailed. Already Defra says the reduction of use may be as low as 60%. That is not good enough. Not when even the Americans are getting on board, with levies or bans proposed or enacted in 132 US cities, from Los Angeles to Chicago to Washington DC.

We can do better, and we should.