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Plastic bag policy 'a diversion'

17 May 2008
By Joe Lynam
BBC News

Plans to ban or charge for single-use plastic bags are a diversion from the real environmental issues, one of the government's own advisers has said.

Waste and recycling expert Professor Chris Coggins said such a government policy allowed the supermarkets to pass on responsibility to customers.

He said supermarkets could be helping to influence packaging rather than shifting the problem on to consumers.

The government said the public wanted to see action to curb use of the bags.

Visible litter

"Supermarkets have a much bigger role to play in influencing the packaging they use," said Professor Chris Coggins, who was appointed research managing agent for the Department of Food and Rural Affairs' (Defra) waste research programme in 2005.

"They [supermarkets] have power in terms of what they buy and how it's packed. The problem is, by focusing on the consumer end, they are to some extent diverting attention from what they should be doing."

In a BBC interview, Prof Coggins, who also works on the sustainable urban environment (waste) programme, said: "Plastic bags are a very visible form of litter but in reality they are a very small proportion of waste and oil use.

"So in overall resource terms, it's a visual rather than mainstream issue."

Environment minister Joan Ruddock admitted single use bags were only a small part of the waste stream.

But she added: "We know that the public is on our side. They want action. It's very symbolic of our throw-away society and so we do need to do something quite dramatically to curb their use."

Trivial issue

British retailers hand out an estimated 13 billion free plastic bags every year, which take about 1,000 years to decay.

The government has set a voluntary target of cutting plastic bag usage by a quarter every year.

It has also proposed stricter measures on retailers as part of the proposed climate change bill, should that target not be met.

The retail sector comprises about 7% of the total UK building energy consumption, emitting over 5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year, according to the Carbon Trust.

But the proposed new legislation has not been welcomed by retailers.

Jane Milne, from the British Retail Consortium, which represents Britain's supermarkets, said: "There are a lot of important provisions in the climate change bill which we do support but we think this is a rather trivial issue to add onto it.

"It's not just a sledgehammer to crack a nut, it's a steamroller to crack a walnut. It really is not the best use of our resources in terms of all the issues that we need to be addressing."

Lack of uniformity

Since 6 May, one of Britain's largest retailers, Marks & Spencer, has been charging its customers 5p for each disposable plastic bag as part of its corporate environmental policy.

The move follows a trial at 50 stores in Northern Ireland and the south-west of England, which saw demand for polythene bags fall by more than 70%.

If that trend is copied throughout the UK, M&S said it could reduce the number of bags used by 280 million each year.

Other supermarkets such as Tesco and Sainsbury's have their own policies for cutting plastic bag use among customers.

Discount retailers such as Aldi and Lidl have been charging for bags for a number of years.

This array of strategies to combat single-use plastic bags by supermarkets has also been criticised by Prof Coggins as confusing for shoppers looking for uniformity nationwide.

In 2002, the Republic of Ireland became the first country in the world to charge for plastic bags - a policy which cut usage by 90% almost overnight.

Although the scheme has been beneficial for the environment, the measure was initially introduced to reduce litter.