Friday, 30 July 2010

On Banning Plastic Bags - Part 2

A couple of weeks ago, in 'On Banning Plastic Bags', I posted on here a letter I sent to UK Secretary of State for the environment, Caroline Spelman, asking for details on her waste and plastic bag policies, along with the somewhat disappointing reply I recieved from her department, DEFRA.

This is the letter that I sent back following DEFRA's response:

Dear Mr. Hands,

Thank you for taking the time to read my letter and for your reply. However, I do not feel that you read my letter fully, or that you have answered my questions.

1. I am aware of Ms Spelman's current review of waste policies and the aim of this to move England toward a zero waste society. The first question I asked in my letter was regarding more detail on how Ms Spelman and Defra plan to achieve the ideal of a zero waste society. What waste policies are under consideration in order to achieve this aim? And how are they going to be structured? For instance, are you investigating the policies of other countries (e.g. Germany) to see how they have achieved what they have?

2. You say that the government's aim is to end the "needless distribution" of the single-use carrier bag. Please could you define for me the term, "needless distribution"? Your use of this term implies that there are circumstances under which the distribution of single-use carrier bags is necessary, a statement with which I would have to strongly disagree.

3. You write, “We would like to see the single-use carrier bag, issued free at the point of sale, become a thing of the past.” Excellent. But how do you plan to achieve this? You provide some interesting statistics further on in your letter regarding the voluntary agreement of a number of supermarket chains to reduce their carrier usage. You explain that the supermarkets involved have agreed to a 50% reduction and that these supermarkets account for 85% of the grocery market. Taking these two numbers together, it accounts for only a 42.5% reduction in carrier bags within the grocery market.

Firstly, this is less than a 50% reduction of carriers bags within the grocery market alone – while, as you say, those who have made this agreement may represent a large portion of the UK’s carrier bag usage, and while a 42.5% reduction is a good start (everything has to start somewhere, after all), this is still an extremely long way from the making the single-use carrier bag “a thing of the past”. How do you plan to make up the 57.5% shortfall?

Secondly, it is important to note that this 50% target is a pledge and only a pledge. It is not written in stone that the signatories will meet this target, and if they don’t meet it, there won’t be any consequences because it is not a legal agreement – it is a ‘pledge’. Thirdly, this pledge does not take into consideration retail outside the grocery market – what about book shops, gift shops, music shops, chemists, etc etc?

4. You write, "The key to reducing the number of bags we use is reuse of bags of all varieties." I take this to mean that the manner in which you plan to end "needless distribution" of the single-use carrier bag is by making them multiple use? I take this to mean that the government’s main plan to reduce carrier bags is simply to encourage people to re-use them? Re-use is a good initiative, and I would agree that it would need to be an integral part of any policy, but re-use on its own does not a policy make. And how do you plan to encourage people to simply re-use all their carrier bags? A lot of people are likely to embrace this idea, but without a more solid injunction, you will never achieve a 100% reduction through this method alone.

5. You write, "The results of this earlier agreement were a 26% reduction in numbers of bags distributed by participating retailers, and a 40% reduction in the environmental impact of carrier bags." Please can you tell me how this figure of a “40% reduction in the environmental impact” was obtained?

6. The Defra website link included in your letter does not work. Using this link simply takes me to a page that informs me that the page I was looking for no longer exists (“error 404”). Please could you provide me with the correct link.

7. Lastly, the question which I felt to be the main gist of my letter was whether or not Defra has any plans (or has considered) introducing either a tax or an outright ban on plastic bags. I provided with my first letter an example of the success of a plastic bag tax, and a list of regions throughout the world where a ban is already in place (also attached here). In your reply, you have deftly avoided providing a direct answer to this question. I would be grateful if you could give me an answer please. And if you are not able to answer this or any of my other questions, I would appreciate you forwarding my letter to someone who can.

With thanks,
Isabel Popple

And here is the second reply I recieved:

Dear Ms Popple

Thank you for your reply of 1 July.

We intend to publish the detailed Terms of Reference for the Review shortly along with a Call for Evidence. As the Terms of Reference has not been finalised, I cannot answer as to which policies we will be looking at.

It is recognised that there will always be circumstances where it will be necessary to use a single use bag. For instance, if your own re-usable bags are full, then a single use bag may be appropriate. However, the Courtauld Commitment pledges that single use bags are kept to a minimum.

The 50% reduction in plastic bags only applies to signatories of the Courtauld Commitment. As this is a voluntary agreement it is up to each company to decide on their own strategy for the aims to be achieved. Whilst this is a voluntary agreement, the Government has reserved the right to take steps if the terms of the agreement are not met, though this will be subject to the Review.

The Courtauld Commitment covers 85% of the market. The Association of Convenience Stores (mainly small shops) has agreed to a ‘second tier’ agreement for smaller retailers and others who were not party to the main voluntary agreement. This ‘second tier’ did not bind signatories to specific targets but included a pledge to reduce the number of bags they give out via appropriate measures. This approach could be pursued, though any decision will be subject to the Review.

The first voluntary agreement on carrier bags (2006-2008) aimed to reduce the environmental impact of all carrier bags by 25%. The Waste Resources Action Programme (WRAP) collected and analysed data from the retailers' procurement statistics and monitored sector progress. Data submitted by retailers was reviewed by WRAP to check for any major anomalies and ongoing trends.

The target of ‘25% reduction in the environmental impact of carrier bags’ was measured by looking at a reduction in the number of carrier bags issued and the amount of virgin plastic used, which provided a simple way to measure environmental impact. The participants achieved a 26% reduction in the total number of carrier bags used and a 40% reduction in the amount of virgin polymer used. The total weight of bags was also recorded and reported separately.

Lastly, you asked whether or not there are any plans to introduce either a tax or an outright ban on plastic bags, this will also be subject to the Review.

Yours sincerely,
David Hands
Customer Contact Unit


  1. keep going girl

  2. makes you wonder if they actually care. they must have another planet hidden, at the ready...that's the only logical reason.

  3. Hi Isobel. You are doing great work here. On behalf of all of us I thank you. A report last year showed that the UK use of plasitc carrier bags had halved in the last four years.