It’s now clear that the English plastic bag tax has been a failure with many shoppers turning supposed bags for life into single-use items. The data, which come from the Environmental Investigation Agency, an international campaign group, are stark.
Households used an average of 44 bags for life in the 12 months to June 2018, the Times reported last week, with Tesco issuing 430 million of them. Iceland (the retailer) says that the tax has resulted in more plastic being used, which is exactly what happened in Ireland (the country). Tesco said that it had used more plastic in the 430 million bags for life it issued than in the 637 million single-use bags it had sold in the previous 12 months. It added that its bags for life contained at least 94% recycled plastic
But with the tax set at 10p per bag, we ought to have seen the problem coming. Even on a £50 shop, if you really need an extra bag, who’s going to care much about an additional 10p; that is an increase of 0.2%.
The mistake policy wonks made was to think that everyone would behave like those who were advocating for the tax; that is, those who value the earth above their convenience and who are organised enough to remember to take bags with them every time they go to the shop. We are not all like this – though obviously I am.
What to do, given that the solution (like methadone addiction) seems just as bad if not worse than the problem (like heroin addiction)? Well, I’ve seen two proposals; the first is to double the tax on the thin bags to 10p (as me retailers have done); the second is to raise the cost of a bag for life to £1. The first will surely make little difference; the second will possibly have an effect, but will penalise the poor.
In 2011, Environment Agency analysts reported that a paper bag would have to be used three times before it would be more sustainable than a thin plastic bag used once (typically they were reused). On the same basis, the EA analysts said, a cotton bag would have to be used 173 times.
Environmental education anyone?