Councils want to follow Ireland's lead and ban plastic bags

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 25 July, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 25 July, 2007, 12:00am


They mean well, the courteous Sri Lankan staff at my local convenience store, but there is one thing that grates: they always offer a plastic bag, whether it's for a packet of Jelly Babies, a tin of beans or a pint of milk. Tired of saying 'no thanks' and attempting to explain my actions, I simply say: 'I'm trying to give them up.' Often this elicits a strange look as if I'm trying to give up milk, beans or Jelly Babies.

You cannot blame them, especially when the customer in front asks for a bag for his pre-packaged loaf.

But things must change. Plastic bag use in the city contributes more than 200,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide each year, the equivalent of 72,000 cars on the road. And things will change if councils get their way. Tired of waiting for central government action, the 33 local authorities want to follow Ireland's lead and ban plastic bags.

Bags, they say, are wasteful, bad for the environment, and at the least, scar the landscape. By 2010, each council faces a GBP150 (HK$2,400) fine for each tonne of landfill over the agreed European Union limit. Most are heading for a hefty bill.

The first part of the ban would see a bag levy. The money would then be ploughed into recycling facilities. Charge the consumer, councils claim, and usage will drop. Consumption fell in Ireland by 90 per cent within months of a 15-euro (HK$1.62) tax in 2002.

Many supermarkets are playing ball, although almost all hand out free bags. Tesco offers shoppers loyalty points if they bring their own bag, cutting 600 million carriers in a year, while Waitrose plans recyclable bags in future, and is testing bagless 'green tills'. Marks & Spencer is piloting a scheme to charge 5 pence (80 HK cents) per bag.

The London Councils, which covers the 33 boroughs, is taking a lead as green issues come to the fore.

Mayor Ken Livingstone, who does not drive and always uses public transport, last week called for Londoners to boycott bottled drinking water. He claimed tap water tasted as good (tests show it is), that the mainly unrecyclable plastic bottles filled landfills, and that the water often travelled thousands of kilometres, such as the Fiji brand shipped from - you guessed it - Fiji, 16,000km away. The main big culprits are Evian, shipped 750km from Geneva, and Volvic, 670km from France. Better to buy Buxton, sourced 160km to the north.

But the green measures have not gone unnoticed by pressure groups watching town hall's spending. The Taxpayers' Alliance loudly lambasted councils last week for frittering millions on 'green' departments. Each employed, on average, eight 'green' staff, it said. The city's and Britain's most deprived borough, Tower Hamlets, has 58 staff working on 'global warming' matters. Islington in the north of the capital is recruiting a 'carbon reduction adviser'.

Worthy efforts? The central government's own environment department thinks the London 'plastax' plan unworthy. 'The wrong way to go,' it says, claiming that retailers offering shoppers incentives to stop using plastic carriers is working. Besides, it says, in Ireland people may have cut down on plastic bags, but they buy far more black plastic bin liners, which are far worse.

Perhaps I should pop down to my shop with a bin liner for my Jelly Babies. That'll confuse them.