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Waste Reduction

Even though we say that plastic bags are forever, they still end hanging from trees

The European Parliament has approved a law that aims to reduce the use of plastic bags on the continent by half by 2017 and by at least 80 percent by 2019. The European Parliament has voted in a draft law aiming to reduce the use of plastic bags across Europe by half by 2017, and further by at least 80% by 2019.

Some of the suggested measures are taxes on bags and mandatory replacements with biodegradable substitutes. In Ireland and Denmark, there have already been some success stories. We found in a research paper that I and my colleagues had published , that government institutions, large organizations, and individuals all play a part in encouraging a shift in behaviour toward ethical consumerism. The European Parliament’s move should encourage governments and other institutions to take action and pass laws that will reduce the use of plastic bags.

The UK Government’s Environment Audit Committee, a cross-party committee of the UK government, called for all shops in England to be included in plans that would introduce a charge of 5p on plastic carrier bags. In Scotland , a similar scheme is set to be implemented this autumn.

Ireland is a good example, where in 2002 a plastic bag tax (“plastax”) led to 94% reduction in bag usage within months. Millions of euros were raised in levies. A similar tax in Wales reduced the use of single-use bags up to 96%. Northern Ireland reported that was reduced by around 80%, a reduction which is still quite significant. A sustained change in the behaviour of people towards plastic bags will need clear and concise actions and a coordinated approach to the problem.

Our research showed that supermarkets played a major role in the reduction of the use of single-use carrier bags – the type targeted by the European Parliament. Our survey found that the majority of respondents began using “bags for Life” around 2008 – this coincided with the voluntary agreement made between the British Retail Consortium and leading supermarkets to reduce the use of single-use carrier bag. Since the voluntary agreement concluded in 2009, their use has increased slowly but steadily.

Source: Wrap UK Voluntary Carrier Bag Monitor (2013)

We found that 80% of respondents claimed to own a bag that they would use for the rest of their lives, but almost a third regularly used free, single-use plastic shopping bags. This shows that attitudes and behavior are still far apart. Many people claim to own a bag that they will use for the rest of their lives, and many say it is for environmental reasons. However, many bags are left at home, unused, and forgotten. There is more that can be done to close the gap between intentions and actions. Initiatives such as texting customers to remind them that they should bring their bags have proven to be successful.

According to WRAP, the percentage of single-use bags as a percent of all bags issued is stable. Single-use bags account for 95% of bags and reusable bags for life 5%. The European Parliament and member state governments, along with major retailers, could make a significant difference in the amount of single-use plastic bags used. It is a good idea to combine taxes, levies, and marketing restrictions with bans in order to reduce their use.

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Jane S. King

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