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A plastic bag tax will hit the poor and small shops but won't help the environment

By Harry Phibbs
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Today we learn that the Government is to introduce a Plastic Bag Tax.

It will start at 5p a bag. The policy has the political attraction of placating both the Daily Mail and the Liberal Democrats. It is claimed that it will help the environment. It is then added that implementing the change can be done quite smoothly and that the charge proposed is modest.

All these claims seem to me to be flawed. A customer irritated by the charge will not think to himself: "Still, most politically adept of the Government to please the Daily Mail and the Liberal Democrats at the same time so I mustn't grumble."

Will it help the environment?

At best any gains could only be modest. Plastic bags are very thin. They account for less than one per cent of household waste by volume. 80 per cent of plastic bags are reused at least once. Voluntary effort has already resulted in fewer plastic bags being used (halved from 13 billion a year to 6.5 billion a year) and more recycled content in plastic bags for those we do use.

From an aesthetic point of view I prefer paper bags to plastic ones. But paper bags are thicker and less likely to be re-used. Will paper bags be taxed? Will cardboard boxes? Where will the meddling end?

If there is a switch from plastic to paper that would sharply increase the carbon footprint. In research by the Environment Agency it was found that if re-used, (as mostly happens), the plastic bag is better environmentally than the alternatives.

The Lib Dem MP for Southport, John Pugh adds:

Paper packaging is heavier, and as it is made from a biodegradable product, it can produce greenhouse gases when in landfill, unlike plastic, which is chemically inert.

In Ireland the charge meant fewer people re-used plastic bags for their rubbish - but this didn't mean a reduction in the amount of plastic used. The Guardian reports:

While it was true that the tax led to a dramatic drop in the number of bags being handed out in shops, it also triggered a 400% increase in the number of bin liners and black refuse bags being purchased.

Similarly, if only a very few more people decided to drive to shops and load their cars with cardboard boxes, then any environmental benefits would be cancelled.

So far as claims that administering the new tax will be smooth, that might be true for big supermarkets. It will be a greater administrative burden for small and medium sized shops. The independent retailers - those shops the Government is supposed to be wishing to help, to keep our high streets alive. Is the revenue raised going to be used for tax cuts elsewhere that would offset the damage, such as a cut in Business Rates? It is not. The Plastic Bag Tax will mean more empty shops. If small shops are exempted, how small would they have to be?

Then there is the claim that for the customer "only" 5p a bag is a modest sum. That sort of comment is rather more likely to be made by the rich than by the poor.

This proposal for a plastic bags tax is a cynical, gimmicky piece of green wash. Rather than innovation and technology delivering ecological progress, it looks to heavy-handed state intervention to punish consumers. It contradicts the claims of the Government that they are seeking to reduce red tape and ease the burden on those already struggling to make ends meet.


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