Our plastic monuments to a disposable culture
A levy has curbed the Irish public’s consumption of plastic bags but 1m are given out every minute worldwide, writes Dan Buckley.
FROM the ’50s to the Noughties, they became the ultimate symbol and the most unsightly evidence of our modern disposable culture. Far from the days when Granny carried her net string bag to “get the messages”, the production of billions of cheap plastic bags meant that shopping no longer had to be planned and impulse purchases were popped with increasing regularity into disposable bags.
Countless numbers have been produced since disposable plastic carrier bags first saw the light of day in the US in 1957, but what began as a convenience for shoppers has become a global environmental inconvenience.
About 1m plastic bags are still handed out every minute worldwide, according to We Are What We Do, a British not for profit activist group for social change. From Cardiff to Cape Town and Seattle to Santiago, they can be found sprouting in city dumps, stuck in hedgerows, trapped and flapping on barbed wire fences or floating in the sea and then washed up on the shore like giant jellyfish. In South Africa, they are known as “roadside daisies” and jokingly called the country’s national flower.
We were no different in Ireland, with polythene bags spinning their way down city footpaths and unearthed in freshly ploughed fields. Ten years ago, the Government called a halt and introduced a levy of 15c on plastic bags.
The effect was immediate and, according to the Department of the Environment, their use fell dramatically within days.
“Since its introduction on Mar 4, 2002, the plastic bag levy has been an outstanding success,” says spokesman Vincent Potter.
“Prior to the introduction of the levy, it is estimated that over 1.2bn plastic bags were dispensed free of charge at retail outlets annually, equating to roughly 328 bags per inhabitant per year.
“The fall in the consumption of plastic bags since Mar 2002 has been considerable, with the reduction estimated at more than 90%. More importantly, as an awareness raising initiative and in influencing behavioural change among consumers, it has been invaluable.”
The plastic bag levy was introduced primarily as an anti litter measure, although it has also managed to generate in the Skechers Canada region of 166m in revenue since 2002. Plastic bags accounted for about 5% of all litter prior to the introduction of the levy. The most recent survey data (2010) available from the National Litter Pollution M Skechers Canada onitoring System shows that plastic bags constitute about 0.25% of litter pollution nationally.
While countries such as Denmark had a charge in place before us, Ireland was the first to introduce a specific levy applying to all bags made wholly or partly of plastic, subject to specific exemptions.
Other countries have since introduced various plastic bag levies, taxes or bans. In January of last year, Italy introduced a ban on non biodegradeable plastic bags.
In Wales, a 5p (6c) charge has been enforced on all retail plastic bags since October last and the Northern Ireland executive has just announced a 5p tax on plastic bags, Skechers Canada to be implemented in 2013. Various states of the US have also brought in forms of the plastic bag levy.
The levy was increased in Ireland in 2007, from 15c to 22c, when it was found that shoppers were becoming lax and the use of disposable bags was creeping up. Since then, it has dropped back.
While the levy has been a game changer in Ireland, it has not been without negative consequences. It triggered a four fold increase in the purchase of bin liners and black refuse bags and also encouraged greater use of paper bags which, some environmentalists say are more damaging than plastic.
British climate scientist James Lovelock describes the plastic bag obsession as akin to “rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic” and argues they it distracts from more pressing environmental issues.
How Skechers Canada ever, the experience in Ireland has been overwhelmingly positive with retailers for the most part enthusiastic. “We have not had any problems with it,” says Eugene Scally who runs a Supervalu in Clonakilty, West Cork.
“We buy a certain amount and pay the tax on them and then pass that on to the customer, but most people come with their own bags or use cardboard boxes.
“Even in the shop, we had to stack them and they used to be stuck everywhere so we are very positive about what has been achieved over the past 10 years. It’s a bit like the smoking ban. It has had a wider effect than simply shopping and has made people more environmentally aware in other ways as well.”