With an estimated 100 billion plastic bags used in the EU every year, it is believed that plastic waste is one of the worst environmental problems faced by the region, contributing to 70% of marine pollution.
In order to tackle the problem, the European parliament have voted in favour of cutting waste caused by plastic carrier bags in the EU by 80% by 2019, using levies, taxes and marketing restrictions to encourage a reduction in their use.
The Environmental Audit Committee published a report In February 2014, regarding the Government’s proposals to introduce a 5p charge for carrier bags in England, which is due to come into force in October 2015. Ireland introduced a charge in 2002 and Wales introduced a 5p charge in October 2011, leading to significant reductions in use. Since then, Northern Ireland introduced a scheme in April 2013, and Scotland will introduce a scheme in October 2014.
This brings the UK in line with other EU countries such as Belgium, Switzerland, Germany, and Holland who have already successfully introduced legislation to reduce plastic bag waste. The UK government’s policy has, however, fallen short of countries such as Italy, where the sale of non-biodegradable plastic bags has been outlawed completely.
The Committee supported the aims of the charge which are to cut waste, litter and carbon emissions, but concluded the approach must be kept simple for the scheme to be effective. It also recommended that the Government should not proceed with its plan to make an exemption for biodegradable plastic bags due to the risk of contamination to plastic recycling.
In its response to the Committee’s report, the Government says that while it still believes biodegradable plastic bags will be needed in future, it acknowledges that it is “not aware that such a plastic bag currently exists” and it would “represent a challenge to UK industry to produce a genuinely biodegradable plastic bag that meets defined criteria and which can be reliably identified and separated in waste”.
The Government concluded that a biodegradable plastic exemption: “will not be included in the legislation until standards for the bags have been finalised … The exemption will not come into effect with the legislation for the 5p charge in October 2015.” Paper bags will, however, still be exempt.
The government also rejected calls to include small retailers in the new legislation, setting the English policy apart from the schemes in other parts of the UK, which have set the charge universally. The committee warned that this exemption could limit the benefits of the scheme which are to reduce litter, cut carbon emissions and lessen the risk to wildlife.