Government slammed over bag charge plans

The Government's plans for a five pence charge on plastic carrier bags in England have been slammed by a cross-party committee of MPs.

The Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) published a report today on the issue (6 February). The report states that the current bag charge proposals are “unnecessarily complicated”.

The EAC’s report also stated that bans in Ireland and Wales were simpler and have significantly reduced the impact of plastic bags on the environment.

Over eight billion disposable carrier bags are used in England every year. The proposals have been drawn up by Defra.

They want the 5p charge to apply only to supermarkets and larger stores from October 2015. Most small shops and takeaway outlets would not have to pay the cost.

Defra said that the charge should not be a burden to small businesses.

As well as this exemption, Defra does not want the charge to apply to biodegradable bags. Paper bags and reusable “bags for life” will also avoid the levy.

But the EAC believe these rules are making the proposal too complex.

Chair of the Committee Joan Walley MP said: “Ministers have managed to make a complete mess of their planned carrier bags charge by making it unnecessarily complicated.

“Carrier bags litter our streets and harm wildlife, and the Government is right to want to reduce their use. But Defra seems to have made decisions about the design of this scheme that were based more on wishful thinking than hard evidence.”

She added that biodegradable bags are not as green as they sound. Walley explained: “We heard that they can do as much harm to wildlife as normal plastic bags and could cause big problems for the UK recycling industry, which would have trouble separating and processing the different material.”

She also said that the report points out that paper bags can have greater emissions impact than plastic bags.

The EAC said that recyclers were concerned that increasing the use of biodegradable plastics would threaten the viability of the UK recycling industry by contaminating waste streams and recycled products.

Concerns were also raised during the inquiry that bio-degradable bags would still cause litter and harm wildlife because of the time it takes discarded bags to decay. The Committee is calling on Defra to drop the exemption.


The report has received a mixed response from industry. INCPEN said that it supported some of the conclusions reached by the EAC.

INCPEN director Jane Bickerstaffe said: “INCPEN contends that if there is to be a charge it should apply to all bag types – whether cotton, jute, paper or plastic.

“A major study conducted by the Environment Agency showed that all alternatives to the thin plastic carrier bag have a higher environmental impact and that thin plastic bags were an environmentally responsible way for consumers to carry their groceries home. The Government’s own research found that on average 80% of thin bags are already reused – either on further shopping trips or around the house.

“What’s worse than ignoring the science or confusing the public is that the proposed exemption for biodegradable plastic bags risks damaging the UK plastics recycling industry.

“Where INCPEN and the EAC differ is on the likely impacts on litter of the carrier bag charge: Keep Britain Tidy’s (KBT) national litter surveys consistently show that thin carrier bags are only 0.03% of all littered items.

“INCPEN has been working with KBT for many years to support public awareness and education on the anti-social behaviour of littering, and our members are very strongly supportive of anti-litter measures, but we do not believe that the carrier bag charge is likely to be an effective one.”

David Newman, president of ISWA (International Solid Waste Association) and director of CIC (Italian Composting Consortium), added: “Whilst we appreciate the Committee’s point that a catch-all charge is the most effective way to reduce total bag usage, it fails to note an exemption for home compostable bags would help significantly reduce food waste going to landfill.

“In addition, I remain concerned that this report has not undertaken assessment of the true percentage of plastic bags recycled in the UK, and Europe as a whole.”

Liz Gyekye


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