BELFAST, Northern Ireland, April 14, 2013 (ENS) - Retailers in Northern Ireland must now charge shoppers at least five pence for each new single use carrier bag. The new levy is intended to slash by 80 percent the 250 million single use bags used in Northern Ireland each year.
As the main impact on the environment comes from making and transporting bags, rather than how quickly the bags break down, Environment Minister Alex Attwood says the levy applies to paper bags and single use bags made from natural materials, as well as single use plastic bags.
Launching the levy on April 8, Attwood said, "In Northern Ireland we are using 30,000 carrier bags each and every hour. This levy is intended to help protect the environment by dramatically cutting the number of bags used. Working with the retail sector we are aiming for a reduction of at least 80 percent. Some retailers have already indicated that they will be eliminating single use bags altogether."
A levy on single use bags was introduced in the neighboring Republic of Ireland nearly 10 years ago, while Wales also has a carrier bag tax.
"There is already a high awareness among people here of charging for bags, not least because that is our experience traveling to the Republic," said Attwood.
"I believe we can quickly adjust to the levy. People tell me they are concerned about climate change and want to find ways to make personal, family and local contributions to addressing the threat. The levy is precisely this," he said.
Retailers are required to pass the proceeds of the levy to the Department of Environment each quarter. The levy is expected to generate funds to help community and voluntary organizations, businesses, schools and charities improve the environment.
If shoppers always bring their own bags they never have to pay the levy, the minister said.
"Shoppers can completely avoid paying the levy by bringing their own bags when shopping. Whether it's a 'bag for life,' a canvas bag, or just an ordinary plastic carrier bag, it all helps the environment by using less raw materials, reducing carbon emissions and reducing air and water pollution. This is what the levy is all about," said the minister.
Aodhan Connolly, director, Northern Ireland Retail Consortium, said retailers have spent time and money preparing staff and stores for the introduction of carrier bag charging, and while they are "confident they're ready for this new regime," there is still a risk of initial customer confusion and conflict.
"I hope the Department and the public will be patient while we all get used to this new system," Connolly said.
"I understand the Minister wants to do something for the environment," he said. "We care about the environment too and we've worked with customers on a voluntary basis to deliver big reductions in bag use, but bags should not be politicians' priority."
"Our members are targeting the much bigger environmental prizes to be won from, for example, reducing the whole-life impact of products from manufacture and transport through their lifespan to disposal and recycling," said Connolly.
Commenting on the start of the levy, Feargal Friel, acting vice principal of Hollybush Primary School and Eco Schools co-ordinator said, "School children everywhere want to protect our environment and bringing our own bags with us to shops will really help with the problem of litter. I think it's an exciting time to make a real difference in helping to keep Northern Ireland a happy, clean and green place to live in."
Bringing his re-usable bag to school during the Eco-Schools Bring a Bag Week Campaign in early March, Reuben Hughes a student at St. John the Baptist Primary School in Belfast said, "This is great. After all, if you tied together the 250 million bags currently being used in Northern Ireland they would go round the world twice!"
There are practical exemptions to the levy on the grounds of hygiene and food safety, when a bag is essential to protect goods or consumers and for prescription items.
The levy doesn't apply to bags manufactured for reuse, some small bags, bags to carry hot food/drinks to be consumed away from a retail outlet, bags for items on prescription and bags solely containing packaged uncooked meat, poultry or fish.
"We're grateful for some of the common sense exemptions included in the Act," Connolly said on behalf of the retailers. "You can still have a free bag for privacy reasons with pharmacy items and for health and safety reasons with hot takeaway food."
"I hope the Minister shows the same good sense by dropping his plans for a further bill to put a 10 pence levy on re-usable bags," said Connolly. "Surely we should encourage consumers who are environmentally aware and utilize re-usable carrier bags not penalize them."
Minister Attwood said, "We will continue to build relationships with the retail sector to ensure that the Carrier Bag Levy is a success. As Environment Minister I want us to implement bold challenging new laws to enhance our clean and green credentials. The levy will help to do that."
After the Government of Wales launched a five pence charge in October 2011, bag use in the Welsh food and drink sector has fallen by between 70 percent and 96 percent.
The Scottish government is currently consulting on plans to phase out single-use shopping bags. Results of the consultation were expected in December, but the high number of responses has caused a delay.
However, no such moves are planned in England.
Environmental campaigners reiterated calls this week for all British retailers and the coalition government to introduce charges across the board.
"Retailers should absolutely take the lead on this and some already have. Like M&S [Marks & Spencer] and B&Q [Block & Quayle]," said Friends of the Earth resource use campaigner Julian Kirby. "The big shame is that elements of the market are pushing well ahead of the UK government, which is becoming the dirty man of Europe."
Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2013. All rights reserved.
Cover photo: Belfast, Northern Ireland. Author: Bea y Fredi. Uploaded to flickr.com. Licensed be Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)