Fake plastic fees

Am I the only one who uses carrier bags to line the kitchen bin and bag other waste before putting it out?

Governments all over the world are falling over themselves to introduce disincentives for using plastic bags to take your shopping home, supposedly for environmental reasons. I am highly skeptical about this although I completely support the view that we should use less plastic. The main problems are a few obvious unintended consequences:

1. If I don’t get a disposable plastic bag with my shopping then I might buy a product called a bin bag
So the “plastic bag tax” supports the business of making strong plastic bags to throw away after one use. At least when I use a shopping bag as a bin liner it gets used at least twice before being thrown away.

2. If I am not given a strong plastic bag in the shop then my purchases might get damaged
Ireland is called the Emerald Isle because it rains a lot. I used to live there and they led the way in taxing plastic bags (since 2002!), but permitted paper bags to be given away. This was a great and progressive move back then, but rain rapidly degrades paper bags and it is a common thing in the West of Ireland to suffer your bag’s demise and destruction of your purchases by impact with the pavement. This means you have to buy again, thus increasing your consumption and further eroding the benefit of your decreased bag use. Biodegradable plastic bags would seem to be a solution but the Irish scheme also applies a levy to these.

3. Shops respond by manufacturing a re-usable “bag for life”
A great innovation by the shops and surely part of the solution, but these things hardly last long enough to justify the extra materials involved in their construction. Large uptake of re-usable bags can be expected to reduce overall number of bags used (this measure will be used when ministers praise the success of the scheme in a few years), but overall amount of plastic used (this is the measure that actually matters) probably doesn’t change that much due to increased plastic per bag and people buying more bin bags (1). Furthermore a re-usable bag is designed not to degrade so it is rarely constructed of biodegradable materials. I do like these bags though and have loads of them. My favourite ones are made out of a rough woven hemp-like string and came from Booths stores.


I would like to see non biodegradable shopping bags banned from use completely in October 2015 instead. There is no need for any fake green taxes or for further delay. Later on non-biodegradable bags should be banned from other uses . Shops would respond by providing paper bags initially and increasing capacity for stronger biodegradable bags (= green economy jobs). Consumers would respond by going elsewhere or bringing their own bags if not satisfied with the shops efforts. Any associated cost can be handled by the shop as they please either by building it into goods pricing or charging per bag at the till. I find it very unlikely that a biodegradable bag would cost as much as the bag levies typically enforced by government schemes. So called “bag for life” must also be biodegradable or the waste stream will simply be switched from lightweight to heavyweight bags.


I wrote this post in response to a Guardian article on the forthcoming introduction of a 5p bag tax in the UK, which they describe as:

“one of the coalition’s foremost green policies, championed by both Nick Clegg and David Cameron”

Seriously – this is not progressive at all for the Greenest Government Ever. The article also mentions that biodegradable bags will be charged for too, blatantly revealing this to be principally a revenue generating scheme and not a serious attempt to protect the environment.

Additional problems with the UK 5p bag charge

I focused above on unintended consequences, however there are some other technical problems with charging a tax on bags:

  1. Why 5p a bag? Mass of plastic is more important than number of bags.
  2. Why only bags? Bags are very lightweight and surely a tiny fraction of our overall plastic use. How can targeting this tiny segment of the plastic market be justified? If a tax must be applied it should target all products – a plastic tax, not a bag tax.
  3. This petty tax will annoy a lot of people who are not interested in environmental protection, thus alienating them further and undermining other environmental schemes.


In addition to the links within the article, these are informative: