Plastic Fantastic?

It is the supposedly quiet time of summer, so what better time for politicians to make announcements about possible policies and actions – or in this case consultation. The Scottish government announced this week that it was going to consult (AGAIN) this autumn over the possibility of imposing a levy/tax on ‘single-use’ plastic bags. Five years on from a unanimously defeated(in committee) attempt to legislate, we get to do it all again.

What is the point?

We will get the usual suspects on either side lined up. More heat than light will be generated (again). The lobby industry will be in full swing – it is unfair, why penalise consumers, don’t make life complex for hard-pressed retailers, it won’t save the planet, the alternatives will be worse. They might be right – or again they might not be!

And that’s part of the problem. The research seems to be capable of being interpreted in different ways. The introduction of the tax in Ireland cut the number of such bags used by 90-95%, yet we still seem to be arguing is this is a success? Are plastic bags that much worse than the alternatives (assuming paper)? If plastic bags are such a small part of the overall waste stream, then do they really warrant such a legally imposed sledgehammer? What about the other waste? And then there’s the freedom to choose argument – consumers and retailers should not be told or taxed what to  do, but should be able to make up their own minds.

The mood music was so good for a couple of years. The voluntary code (seven retailers signed up to the Scottish Government code – why only seven?) cut the usage by just on 50% in three years. But that progress seems to have stalled and even reversed. Is that due to consumer boredom or a function of changing retail and consumer patterns in a downturn?

We know the arguments, if not the outcomes. So what’s the point of consultation? The last round told us enough, and few people beyond those immediately affected actually gave their views. But in any case, the question is really do you want to pay more or not – guess the answer, especially in these tough recessionary times.

Ireland has a tax. Wales is following suit it seems. Northern Ireland may do likewise. For Scotland it is a leap of faith. Would charging:

  • make people think about their use of resources and their behaviours?
  • stop some litter?

Probably yes; save the planet, no. So why are we prevaricating? Do it and have done with it, or don’t do it and shelve the idea. We elect politicians to do things – the SNP Manifesto included a statement on the phasing out of plastic bags, through legislation if need be. So what are waiting for – England to decide before us?

About Leigh Sparks

I am Professor of Retail Studies at the Institute for Retail Studies, University of Stirling, where I research and teach aspects of retailing and retail supply chains, alongside various colleagues. I am Chair of Scotland's Towns Partnership. I am also a Deputy Principal of the University, with responsibility for Internationalisation and Graduate Studies.
This entry was posted in Campaigns, Consumer Change, Government, Plastic Bags, Regulation, Retailers, Tax, Waste and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Plastic Fantastic?

  1. Pingback: Plastic Bags, Referenda and Retail Prices | Stirlingretail

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