Carrier bag tax brings mixed response from home improvement sector

News that the government is considering a levy on plastic carrier bags has brought a mixed reaction from the home improvement sector, according to an investigation by the magazine DIY Week. While the packaging industry has moved quickly to refute the benefits of such a tax, retailers seem to have little issue with the proposals.

Environment minister Michael Meacher proposed the plan as the Government seeks to toughen up its green commitments, reports James Thornton of DIY Week. If the scheme goes ahead, consumers will be faced with a compulsory charge of nine pence per plastic bag to combat litter and pollution. The minister has called for a report on a similar scheme introduced in Ireland in May, saying a decision will be made within three months (see related story).

In response, the Packaging and Industrial Films Association (PIFA) has issued a statement outlining its objections to the plan. PIFA quotes studies carried out by the Department for the Environment and the Marine Conservation Society saying that carrier bags do not contribute to the litter problem.

The first survey, carried out in 1995, found that 60% of litter was paper or organic waste. The second report, covering the period 1994-2000 analysed litter found on beaches. Of the 1029 plastic items found, only 46 were carrier bags. “Plastic bags therefore represent a very small percentage of total litter found in our environment, almost certainly less than 1%,” the statement says.

The PIFA goes on to argue that plastic carrier bags are often re-used and bringing in the new legislation would encourage less environmentally acceptable options.

However, when canvassing retailers on the proposed move, DIY Week found the response to be generally positive with both independent and multiple retailers prepared for the levy.

“Actually, we discussed it internally six months ago, before the Irish started the levy,” said Jan Nicolson of Jansvans Mica Hardware on the Isle of Skye. “We are going to provide all our regular customers with a canvas bag with ‘Jansvans Mica Hardware’ printed on it. It’ll be a permanent advert. We already have a sign on the counter saying we are trying to reduce the amount of polythene we use and many people don’t take a bag. It’s a bit unfortunate that legislation has to push us into it but that’s life. The whole question of waste is a huge issue we have to address.”

Retailer Woolworths is also happy with the prospects of a plastic bag tax. “Woolworths is committed to achieving high environmental standards,” says a spokesperson for the company. “Like most other retailers we are members of the BRC Environment Policy Advisory Group. The Group is discussing the issue in July and we will be guided by the consensus view.”

In Ireland, the tax may not have caused the problems predicted by the PIFA. “Since the legislation was brought in we have been quite pleasantly surprised, there has been no negative feedback from customers at all,” said Maurice Cunningham, Marketing Manager for B&Q Ireland. “Under the new regulations we have to charge 15 cents per bag – we’re not allowed to foot the bill ourselves, to maximise the environmental impact. Obviously we are in a very different market from the food retailers where customers have dozens of items and because of the size and nature of the goods it has had less of an impact. What we have found is that people are simply bringing their trolleys to the car and not using bags.”

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