Iain Gulland: Bag charge could change behaviour

From next week a single-use carrier will cost at least 5p. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
From next week a single-use carrier will cost at least 5p. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
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In less than a week, new legislation will come into force in Scotland which means that every time shoppers take a single-use carrier bag (including those that are plastic, paper or plant-based), they’ll need to pay at least 5p for it.

Mention “carrier bag” and we immediately picture the weekly trip to the supermarket, loading plastic bags full of groceries into the boot. While supermarkets will have a key role to play in this, it’s important to remember that all retailers are required to charge for single-use bags – including charity organisation The Scottish Seabird Centre, in North Berwick, which helped to launch Zero Waste Scotland’s Carrier Commitment. The Carrier Bag Commitment recognises retailers who donate the proceeds of the charge to good causes, as well as providing them with access to a central reporting portal and bespoke communication tools.

More than 100 retailers have expressed an interest in the Commitment, with early signatories from across sectors including Marks and Spencer, Superdry, Holland and Barratt and McDonald’s. The Commitment forms part of a wider range of support we’re offering retailers to help them understand the requirement, including guidance, FAQs and a staff training video.

So why is the charge so important, and why are retailers so keen to get on board?

Well, with 750 million single-use carrier bags being given out in Scotland, more per person than in England, Wales or Northern Ireland, it’s no small problem. That’s a lot of resources – energy, raw materials, water and human effort – going into creating and transporting bags which in most cases will be used only once. Many carrier bags end up in landfill sites, or all too often, end up littering our pavements, parks, beaches and countryside. The sight of carrier bags blowing in the streets or from trees has become such a common sight, we barely even notice any more.

In fact, it could be said that the humble carrier bag has almost become symbolic of our throwaway culture. The carrier bag charge will have a direct impact on the number of single-use bags in circulation, if experiences in Northern Ireland and Wales which introduced charges last year are anything to go by, but my hope is that the effect will be much further reaching. Placing 5p on a carrier bag will remind us of their value every time we buy one, and has the potential to change habits and behaviours.

So what’s next? As carrying re-usable bags with us becomes more commonplace, will we start to look for other opportunities to incorporate re-usable options into day-to-day life? Could you ditch clingfilm for Tupperware, or mend clothes instead of buying new? If this can be achieved, the charge really will have inspired a paradigm shift in perception – and the potential impact of this could be huge, benefiting our communities, our environment, and our economy.

• Iain Gulland is director at Zero Waste Scotland