Skip to main content

Environment: Plastic Bags

Volume 745: debated on Tuesday 14 May 2013


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they are considering a levy on single-use plastic bags in England.

My Lords, we are monitoring the charging scheme in Wales, data from the first year of which will not be available until the summer. The Northern Ireland scheme began last month. The Scottish consultation response on the charge is expected in due course. We are considering these schemes and the available evidence carefully so that we can make a fully informed decision on a possible charge for England.

I thank my noble friend for that response. Are the Government aware of the substantial hidden costs that English consumers bear from retailers buying and storing and local authorities disposing of plastic bags? Will the Government therefore introduce a small levy to cut those costs and, crucially, to protect our environment and wildlife?

My Lords, my noble friend works tirelessly on this subject. I acknowledge the thrust of her question, although I am not aware of any evidence from Wales that any such savings are being passed on to consumers through lower prices, but we will continue to monitor the situation there. Retailers operate in a competitive environment, and consumers can choose to shop around. Indeed, evidence shows this is a growing trend.

My Lords, the pilot scheme in Wales has lasted for several years. Will the Minister spell out very clearly the objections to the implementation of the scheme in England?

My Lords, as I just said, we are monitoring the charging scheme in Wales and data from the first year will not be available until the summer. I understand that unintended consequences in the Republic of Ireland included an increase in sales of bin liners because consumers no longer used free carrier bags to line their bins. The production of bin liners has a bigger environmental impact than single-use carrier bags. In addition, following the introduction of the charge in Wales there was an increase in sales of bags for life. As the aim of a charge is to reduce use, it could result in a worse environmental outcome if they are used only once or twice, because they need to be used at least four times to have a lower carbon footprint than single-use carrier bags. We need to consider all the impacts in the round, and we will consider very carefully instituting a charge.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that the evidence from Wales suggests an indicative reduction in the use of bags of up to 90%, that there is a benefit for good causes from the 5p charge, which provides worthwhile sums, and that there has been a noticeable reduction in the number of bags lodged in hedgerows around Wales? Does this not add up to a very convincing case?

My Lords, I acknowledge what the noble Lord says. As I have said, we are watching closely. There is a lot of evidence coming in, and we will make a decision in due course.

My Lords, may I put in a good word for single-use plastic bags? How else am I going to get the loose grapes I have bought home without ruining my clothes and a few other things? Equally, how would I get rid of all the weeds that I pick up as I go around my garden with a little plastic bag that I can then transfer to a big bag? Will the Minister support me in my hour of need?

My Lords, I will always do my best to support my noble friend. There is no question of a ban. What I think noble Lords on all sides are suggesting is a charge, so my noble friend will be able to pay a modest sum for her bag if a charge does eventuate.

My Lords, I recycle food waste in a recyclable bag which East Devon provides. Why can we not move into recyclable bags in the supermarkets?

The noble and learned Baroness raises an important question. It is one that we are considering. At the moment, we have not been able to find a bag that is of sufficient strength to do the job, but it is a very important subject and we are looking at it closely.

My Lords, the noble Lord said that it will take until the middle of this year before he gets the data for the first year’s operation of the scheme in Wales. Will he give us a timeline for how long it will take him to assess that data so we know when he will make a decision? Will it take him a year?

My Lords, we will get on with this expeditiously. There is a lot of action already. I understand that retailers including Marks & Spencer, WHSmith and Lidl have instituted voluntary charges. Sainsbury, Asda, Tesco, Morrisons, Waitrose and Co-operative Food have put carrier bag recycling facilities at the front of their stores. We are providing funding for various projects in the marine environment, where the problem is often at its starkest. Keep Britain Tidy operates the Love Where You Live education and information programme. As I said, we are actively considering a charge on carrier bags based on the experience in the devolved Administrations.

My Lords, will the Minister tell the House what is happening on the other side of the channel in Europe? I know that a number of countries have banned single-use plastic bags, but I wonder whether any other country is using a form of levy.

My Lords, I am aware that there is action in countries on the other side of the channel such as France, Spain and Italy. It is worth saying that in 2011 the Commission consulted on a number of possible options for reducing the use of plastic carrier bags. We responded to the consultation and encouraged the Commission to undertake a full cost-benefit analysis as part of the development of options. It has published a response to the consultation and is currently considering its options.

Is the Minister aware that in some parts of Wales the charge for a plastic bag is 10p, in other parts 5p and in other parts 3p—and that if you know the shopkeeper, it is nothing? Is he also aware that the charge is supposed to be for charity, but I often see the money going into the shop’s till? Is he aware that this is happening in Wales?

The noble Baroness points out an extremely good reason why we should look very carefully at what is happening in Wales before we act. I thank her for that.

My Lords, as I said, we are considering options. As yet there is no proposal on the table. Paper as a material does not lend itself readily to reuse unless combined with other materials, which makes its recycling very difficult. All bags have an environmental impact. While paper bags are derived from a renewable resource, they are heavier than plastic bags and it can take more energy to produce and transport them.