Plastic bag tax ‘unnecessarily complicated’, say MPs

The Government has ignored calls to include all retailers in the 5p plastic bag charge, despite numerous experts insisting it would reduce litter, slash carbon emissions and cut down on waste.

The Environmental Audit Committee’s (EAC) recent Plastic Bag Inquiry urged the Government to change the levy system so that the 5p charge on single-use bags in England – due to come into force in October 2015 – was extended to smaller shops, pointing to the success of universal schemes in Wales and Ireland.

But in response to that Inquiry, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said it wanted to ‘reduce the burden on start- up and growing businesses in England at a time when the Government is supporting new growth in our economy’.

The Inquiry also pushed for ‘biodegradable’ plastic bags to be exempt from the 5p charge, but Defra again rejected the calls, as it is ‘not aware that such a plastic bag currently exists’.

EAC chair Joan Walley said: “The 5p bag charge is the right solution — it will reduce litter, cut carbon emissions and reduce waste. Despite our Committee’s recommendations, the Government has decided not to apply the charge across the board, but to go ahead with its proposed exemptions. That risks diluting the benefits of the charge.

“The decision to only include large retailers is particularly short-sighted and ignores calls from all of the main small retailer organisations to be included in the scheme.”

Speed up

Tony Breton, UK strategist for Novamont, added: “We are very concerned about the potential for lengthy delays to the introduction of an exemption (for biodegradable plastic bags) – which cause investment hiatus and could be extremely damaging for the UK’s bioplastics and composting industries.

“The Government should speed up the exemption process by using existing robust standards for compostable plastics, rather than go through the lengthy process of creating new standards for plastics which do not currently exist.”

The Government also confirmed that the charge would not apply to paper bags, telling the Committee that ‘paper bags make up less than 0.1% of carrier bags distributed in the UK by the seven major supermarket retailers’. But it did not give data on other retailers, such as high street shops.

A biodegradable plastic bag exemption was envisaged by the Government when it consulted on the charge last November. In the Queen’s Speech, the Government confirmed its intention to go ahead with the charge, although it said it would require a regulation to be introduced rather than new legislation.

Ireland introduced a charge in 2002, and Wales introduced a 5p charge in October 2011, leading to significant reductions in use. Subsequently, Northern Ireland introduced a scheme in April 2013 and Scotland will introduce a scheme in October 2014. None of these schemes have an exception for small retailers.

Luke Nicholls

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