Fiction: The Irish bag tax (a de facto ban) significantly reduced plastic bag litter in Ireland.
Fact: No. The bag tax had little to no impact on litter reduction. Bags comprised only 0.75% of total litter in the country, prior to the bag tax. They ended up consuming more resources, more paper and more plastic.
The bag tax ultimately failed. Why?
- The Republic of Ireland in March, 2002 imposed a 17 cent bag tax on plastic shopping bags at check out, but had to keep increasing the tax to discourage bag consumption because adoption was low (bags are a necessity).
Real Litter Rate of 0.75%
- Ireland stated that the prime driver for the introduction of the tax was that plastic bags were 5% of litter.
- The actual number was 0.75 of 1% of litter, according to the 2002 National Litter Audit (pages 14-15).
Reasons Ireland Introduced the Bag Tax to Reduce the Consumption of Plastic Shopping Bags:
- There would be little job impact. All plastic shopping bags are imported; there is no indigenous bag manufacturing industry.
- Poor record, nationally, on waste diversion/recovery (from 1990-1998, they recovered only 9% of their total waste)
- Weak and underdeveloped recycling infrastructure. Most waste is exported to other countries for recycling or incineration.3
Was the Bag Tax a Success?
- In terms of awareness building it was most likely successful. But it failed as an environmental initiative.
- It didn’t solve the litter problem of 0.75%, but it did help Ireland to understand the nature of their litter and manage perceptions of a problem.
- It didn’t reduce bag litter significantly – still less than 1% with a small reduction noted from 0.75% to 0.24%. In fact, they ended up with more paper litter as stores switched to paper bags; increased from. 0.35% to 0.38% of total litter. (2011 National Litter Pollution Report) 4
- See the report: http://www.litter.ie/Reports/6516%20Final%20Annual%20Report%202011%20300512.pdf
- The bag tax was extremely unpopular because it failed to recognize the necessity for the bags for household garbage.
- The government had to keep increasing the tax to motivate change. What started at about 23 cents (CDN) per bag, ended up at 35 cents (CDN) per bag.
- It was cheaper to buy plastic bags for household garbage off the shelf than pay the bag tax.
- The bag tax produced the opposite environmental effect than intended. It led to an increase in the consumption of more plastic and paper, not less. The result was more material in the waste stream.
- The 90% reduction in the number of plastic bags provided at check out did not lead to a decrease in the amount of plastic consumed or going to landfill.
- The amount of plastic used in Ireland increased by 20% as people substituted heavier kitchen catcher type garbage bags. These bags contained 76% more plastic than conventional plastic shopping bags. The sale of kitchen catchers increased +77%.5
- Further, the bag tax led to a massive increase (+400%) of paper bags in the waste stream. (Source: U.K. Carrier Bag Coalition)
- With little recycling capacity at all in Ireland (most of the waste is exported), more waste ended up in landfill.
- See Toronto Star article, "Tax cuts plastic bags in trees but not in dumps”. Deborah Dundas, Feb.1, 2007.
- The Scottish government environment agency rejected the Irish bag tax as part of its two year examination of plastic shopping bag issues because it had a number of negative, unintended consequences.
- The UK Minister of the Environment, Ben Bradshaw, who testified at the Scotland Environment Committee said that there were too many “disbenefits” to the Irish bag tax—one of which was a 20.1% increase in plastic consumption (see below).
Toronto Star excerpt - Increase in Plastic Consumption in Ireland:
A leading Irish retailer, Superquinn, is enthusiastic about the the bag tax, but agrees that sales of garbage "kitchen catchers" have increased since it was introduced.
Ireland's Department of the Environment admits this is a limitation of the tax, as households that previously used plastic shopping bags to line kitchen bins switched to buying conventional garbage bags. "Whereas it has not reduced levels of plastic going to landfill ... it has had a huge impact on visible litter."
Ed Davitt, a program officer with Friends of the Earth, Ireland, says this consequence "highlights the limited nature of the plastic bag tax. It's not really taking the approach that Friends of the Earth would, which is reduction of usage and consumption in the first place. Ideally, we would like to see people using less of everything. The plastic bag tax is a bit of a sop."
Imports of bags into the Republic of Ireland from EU & Non-EU Countries
Sacks and Bags of Polymer of Ethylene 39231200
TONNES - 1996 - 2006
Source: Her Majesty's Customs Department Importation Statistics on all bags imported in Ireland.
* Tax implemented March 2002.
** 2006 Unintended impact is MORE plastic used NOT LESS.+20.1
1 LITTER QUANTIFICATION SURVEY Pages 14 & 15
2 http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Resource/Doc/57346/0016899.pdf Page 18 Shopping bags
3 A Strategy for Developing Recycling Markets in Ireland
5 http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Resource/Doc/57346/0016899.pdf page 18