Wednesday, November 26, 2014

One month later: Scotland's hugely successful 5 pence charge for single-use plastic bags

We were as bad as everyone else.

Like so many, we would mindlessly accept plastic bags to carry our purchases. Whether it was a cartful of groceries or a sole pack of lightbulbs from the hardware store, most things would come home in a plastic bag. At least we got a second use out of ours, employing the bags for cleaning our cat's litterbox.

Ultimately, however, we were part of the problem.

Plastic bags / single use bags / carrier bags in Scotland
Whether you call them plastic bags, carrier bags, or single-use bags, they now come with a 5 pence charge for each one.
Last month, however, Scotland instituted a small charge of 5 pence per plastic bag. Starting on October 20, these "single use bags" are taxed by the government in an attempt to reduce litter — a huge problem in Scotland and stem the "throwaway culture." The government estimated that more than 800 million bags were given away just by Scottish supermarkets every year. Let that sink in.

Actually, it's not really a tax. The Scottish government requires retailers to charge at least 5 pence — they're free to charge more — for every plastic bag. The funds raised from the charge can be spent in whatever way a business chooses, but many of the leading retailers have publicly committed to giving the proceeds to charitable and environmental causes, as well as to reporting how many bags they've dispensed and how they've used the money.

And, incidentally, the ban is not just on plastic bags, and not just on brick-and-mortar retailers. Online retailers have the same charges. Paper bags are getting the same treatment, as are some plant-based material bags. There are some exceptions. Bags used to carry unpackaged food, whether for humans or animals, are exempted. Thus, the flimsy plastic bags you might use for fruits and veggies at a grocery store come with no charge. Similarly, paper bags used by pharmacists are exempt. A few other exceptions apply.

Scotland is following the lead of other parts of the United Kingdom. In 2011, Wales started charging for single-use bags, reducing usage by 75%. Northern Ireland followed suit in 2013, reducing usage by 80%. England will institute a charge in October 2015.

Italy is the gold standard, having banned single-use plastic bags entirely. Denmark is pretty darn good. It instituted a charge a decade ago, in 2003. Now, it leads Europe (other than Italy) in the lowest usage of plastic bags. Statistically, Denmark uses only four bags per person, per year. Wowza!

Last week, the EU announced a new policy for all of its member countries. European nations have three choices:

          (1) ban the single-use plastic/carrier bags;
          (2) introduce mandatory charges by 2019; or
          (3) create binding government targets to reduce use by 80% by 2025.

European statistics show that 92% — I'm not precisely sure how they got such a precise percentage — of the common plastic bags were used only once and then discarded.

So, how is Scotland doing a month or so after it instituted its 5 pence charge?

Although no official statistics have been released, large retail chains are reporting massive drops in plastic bag usage. Morrisons, a supermarket chain, reports an 80% decrease in plastic bag use. ASDA, a large retail store similar to (and owned by) Walmart, says it has seen a 90% decrease.

That means the changeover hasn't happened gradually. It has been immediate. Consumers have altered their purchasing habits at a snap of the fingers. Although the plans for the 5 pence charge met some resistance, those concerns are long gone.

Assuming the figures from Morrisons and ASDA are representative of Scotland's large retailers generally, we're looking at an immediate reduction of more than 640,000,000 plastic bags just from supermarket chains. That doesn't even take into account other retailers.

Of course, the littering problem in Scotland is much more than just plastic bags. Litter is everywhere in Scotland's urban environments. Even on wilderness treks you'll find a surprising amount of trash. It's reminiscent of America several decades ago before the nationwide anti-littering campaigns. Scotland has a long way to go on its anti-littering message.

Nonetheless, without question, the 5 pence charge has done a lot of good in a very short period of time. We'll have to wait to see the longer-term statistics, but it's hard to imagine consumers will suddenly switch back to the plastic bags. This looks like an unmitigated success.

No comments:

Post a Comment