Just when we all thought that use of the ubiquitous plastic bag, to carry home our shopping was in steep decline, along comes a new report in the Guardian, that suggests that we have a long way to go still. Are we just too lazy or don't we care what happens to plastic once it gets into the environment, or are we just not aware of the consequences?
Plastic bag use in Britain is on the rise after the limited success of a voluntary agreement by retailers to cut the number of bags given to shoppers, according to figures compiled this week.
By contrast, in Ireland, which imposed a tax on plastic bags in 2002, the number of plastic bags has plummeted. Consumers in the UK now use nearly four times as many plastic bags as those in Ireland.
According to the figures by the New Statesman from official government sources, the number of bags used a month by each person in the UK dropped from 11 in 2002 to 7.2 in May 2009, but then rose again to 7.7 in May last year – equivalent to 475m bags in total per month. In Ireland, the equivalent figure – compiled from plastic bag tax receipts – has dropped from 27 in 2002 to 2 in 2009, suggesting that the tax is having a strong impact on consumer behaviour.
"Ireland's shoppers are enjoying freedom from the endless unnecessary plastic bags, as these figures show," said Julian Kirby, resource use campaigner for Friends of the Earth. "A standard charge in England would help save resources and cut climate-changing gases."
Four years ago, single-use plastic bags became an environmental issue in the UK, after the residents of Modbury, Devon, banned them from the village. Photographs of wild animals caught up in plastic bags drew attention to the damage the bags were causing, and the Daily Mail joined the campaign, with a call in 2008 to "Banish the bags", so that "our streets, fields, parks, seas, rivers and beaches will be cleaner for our grandchildren to enjoy".
But, despite support from many sides, Gordon Brown backed away from imposing either a ban or a levy on the bags, and instead allowed retailers to create a voluntary agreement. The New Statesman's waste policy report suggests the agreement – although initially leading to a drop in bag use – has had only a limited success.
Ireland introduced a tax of 15 cents a bag in 2002, increasing it to 22 cents in 2007. The tax, which retailers are required by law to pass on to the shopper, is ring-fenced for green projects. Wales plans to follow suit this year.
Washington DC imposed a tax in January 2009, and Vietnam plans to introduce one this year. In Seattle, however, voters rejected a plastic bag tax, and in France the government performed a U-turn on similar plans.
"We certainly support a ban on plastic bags," said Sam Jarvis of campaign group Wastewatch, "as we would support a ban on any single-use disposable items such as disposable razors, as a general principle. Plastic bags are a totemic issue, and a ban might well encourage people to think about waste more broadly. The Irish example shows this really can work."
"If Gordon Brown hadn't bottled it with the supermarket lobby," says Rebecca Hoskins, who led the Modbury campaign, "plastic bags would now be a distant memory and we would all be wondering what the fuss was about."
But, there is some positive news too. It seems that people in other parts of the world are taking the scourge of plastic a little more seriously than we are. Three cheers to Togo! This is taken from the Independent.
Togo on Wednesday said it will outlaw the import and sale of plastic bags from July in order to protect the environment, picking up on a growing global trend.
"These bags have become truly disastrous for the environment...The public must know that a plastic bag is not biodegradable and that they need at least 400 years to decompose," said trade ministry official Mohamed Saad Sama.
Importers of plastic bags were given a six-month deadline and manufacturers nine months, he told national television.
More than three billion plastic bags are used every year by Lome residents, according to estimates by green group Pour un Avenir Ensoleille (For a Sunny Future)."
Kenya last week declared a similar ban, renewing an earlier pledge that had failed in 2007.
Of all five members of the East African Community - Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda - only Rwanda has so far successfully banned all plastic bags since 2008, and replaced them with paper bags.
Italy, among the top consumers of plastic bags in Europe, began banning them from shops and supermarkets beginning January 1, a move widely welcomed by environmentalists.