Bags of concern

29 October 2013

The issue of 'single use' plastics shopping bags raised its head in the UK again in September, when Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg announced a new £0.05 mandatory levy for single use carrier bags in larger supermarkets and stores in England, to begin in the autumn of 2015.

Although not strictly speaking packaging, the useful but much maligned shopping bag could be fairly said to represent much of what's portrayed as 'wrong' with packaging, in the eye of many concerned citizens and organisations.

The UK coalition government move was trailed very much as an environmental measure, aimed at tackling the proportion ("far too many" out of about 7 billion in 2012) of such bags ending up in landfill or "scattered around our streets and rivers killing wildlife".

While smaller retailers would be exempted from the 5p levy, and the introduction of biodegradable bags would be "incentivised", a PR weak-spot in the plan is perhaps that the Government would only be able to 'encourage', not to compel retailers to pass on the (not insignificant) levies raised to charities.

The mere mention of the subject does of course bring immediate and loud comment, from all sides. Speaking up from the packaging sector, the Packaging and Films Association (PAFA) condemned the announcement as a "political diversion...unsupported by science".

PAFA CEO Barry Turner said: "This announcement sends many mixed messages and ignores the reality of Environment Agency studies that show plastics carriers have lower overall impacts than any other material when properly re-used and recycled."

For its part, Symphony Environmental - proponent of oxo-biodegradable plastics bags based on its own d2w additive - has taken the opportunity to issue a forthright challenge to the European Plastics Converters body (EuPC) "to produce credible scientific evidence in support of its position" that oxo-bio plastics cannot be safely recycled with other oil-based plastics. Symphony will, it says, conduct trials with any EuPC member to confirm that they "could safely include materials containing oxo-biodegradable technology into their existing plastics waste stream".

Elsewhere, European Bioplastics has issued a position paper supporting "a levy or taxation on oil-based plastics shopping bags", on condition that those containing "at least 50 percent bio-based content should generally be exempted from the ban or tax".

And Chartered Institution of Wastes Management (CIWM) chief executive Steve Lee highlighted the need to continue raising awareness of the environmental costs attributable to the products placed in carrier bags if thrown away, rather than the bag itself.

Whatever transpires, it may in the end turn out only to have been political hot air: the timetable for the proposed introduction of the new bag levy in England places it after the next UK general election in 2015.

David Longfield,
Deputy Editor

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