Their negative impacts on the environment are obvious: the energy and resources used to produce them; the difficulty with dealing with them once they become refuse; and the visual impact they can have when plastic bags often end up as litter. This new law brings England into line with the rest of the UK, with the Government predicting up to an 80% reduction in the use of plastic bags in our supermarkets.
Importantly, the five pence charge is not a Government tax. The proceeds are retained by the supermarkets with the Government simply encouraging them to put this money towards good causes. The only stipulation appears to be that the supermarkets have to state on an annual basis what they have chosen to do with the money, presumably to coerce them into doing something positive with the cash or else risk being named and shamed.
Another way of looking at this levy is that, pre-October 2014, if you happened to buy something in a supermarket but didn’t require any carrier bags (perhaps you brought your own) then you were essentially subsidising everybody else’s free bags. Although it may only be a very small amount, every purchase in a supermarket needed to include a sum to cover the cost of free carrier bags, and this would apply whether you wanted one or not. Put in these terms, it seems a little unfair that someone who had the fore-thought to take their own bags should be forced to subsidise those who didn’t. At least this is no longer the case.
So what does this have to do with transport? Well, according to a 2007 study, 86% of people drive to the supermarket, which means that the other 14% are using some other mode (Shopping Miles, Future Foundation, March 2007). Many supermarkets provide car parking to their customers for free, even though a significant cost is involved. In 2012, London Councils published research that estimated the cost of a car parking pace at between £300 and £500 per year (The relevance of parking in the success of urban centres, London Councils, October 2012). So, just like carrier bags, people are unknowingly subsidising car use. And, just like with carrier bags, the downsides of free parking, and the driving it encourages, are quite clear, including: increased air pollution; decreased physical activity; and a blighted urban fabric.
So is it time that the Government forced supermarkets to introduce a new charge? One that applies to those who choose to drive to supermarkets? This would help to discourage unnecessary car use, highlight the real costs of car parking, and remove the unfair, hidden costs applied to those who arrive by other modes. Again, the levy wouldn’t need to be a Government tax, with the proceeds retained by the supermarkets who could be encouraged to put them to good use. This could include improving walking and cycling routes as well as better public transport links to supermarkets. Or even used more widely, for safer routes to schools or improved town centre accessibility.
While such a levy may not prove to be a vote winner, it would at least raise the profile of the issue and help to encourage people to re-evaluate their travel choices.