City Guide to Edinburgh, Scotland

City Guide to Edinburgh, Scotland

Edinburgh's Plastic Bag Problem


By edg - Posted on 24 September 2008

Marchmont and Sciennes' cloth bag

One aspect of living in a windy city such as Edinburgh is that disposable plastic bags are always on the loose. You see them everywhere: their shredded remains - the so-called "witches knickers" - fluttering like streamers from trees and fences; along pathways and beaches gathering in muddy pools of water; in the Water of Leith pulled along by the current like species of jellyfish; or wafting above rush hour traffic on Lothian Road like cavorting kites.

It's not just an issue of aesthetics, although in a tourist destination such as Edinburgh looking good is considered a vital part of the local economy. It's the environmental cost of churning masses of plastic shopping bags out day after day: plastic bags don't decompose in landfill, and they can't be put out with your recycling. Instead of bio-degrading, plastic bags photo-degrade into smaller bits that poison the environment.

Bag-free city

When Green Party councillor Alison Johnstone called for a report into how Edinburgh can become "the first plastic bag-free city in the United Kingdom" in September 2007 she noted that "plastic bags can take up to 500 years to decay in landfill" and "that an estimated 46,000 pieces of plastic can be found in every square mile of ocean."

Not surprisingly, given Edinburgh's poor record on recycling compared to other European cities, the proposal didn't get much traction. Recycling hasn't really become part of our culture as it has in other parts of the world and the plastics industry has been aggressively lobbying against any regulation, even suggesting that a plastic bag ban "is worse" for the environment.

Edinburgh would have been in good company had the council supported a ban. When San Francisco introduced a ban on plastic bags in March 2007 it succeeded in bringing about a reduction of an estimated 5 million disposable plastic bags a year. Many cities around the world started moving towards bans or a tax on plastic bags. Los Angeles will ban bags by 2010, for example.

Even Prime Minister Gordon Brown has voiced support for a ban and Chancellor Alistair Darling has promised to introduce a law taxing plastic bags by 2009 if shops don't do it themselves.

Voluntary ban

The placci bag is with us for a while yet. But if nothing else, talk
of banning the bag has forced us to consider our shopping habits and
spurred some supermarkets, who combined are responsible for 80%-90% of the
plastic bag waste, to take their own initiatives. Marks & Spencers,
Lidl, Ikea and B&Q now charge a small fee for using a plastic bag.

Tesco has held out against charging its customers, preferring to reward
Tesco Club Card holders with "green" points. Tesco claims it saved 2
billion bags in the UK in almost 2 years, although Britain's biggest retailer still gave out 2 million
single-use plastic bags in July 2008.

Edinburgh City Council's response has
been to encourage a reduction of use of plastic bags through education
initiatives and small grants for the production of re-use cotten bags.

It would be easy to be disparaging about the small impact such
initiatives have, but small steps is better than no progress.

"A lot of
good work is already being done to discourage the use of plastic bags.
However, a lot more needs to be done to deal with this problem and to
aim for the zero waste target," says Councillor Robert Aldridge,
Edinburgh's Environment Leader.

Going cotton

In the winter of 2006/2007 Greener Leith distributed 2600 reusable
cotton shopping bags through local merchants (one of our writers uses
hers all the time).

Only a couple of weeks ago Marchmont and Sciennes traders launched a
new cotton shopping bag, designed by competition winner 17-year-old
Gwen Morris, in a bid to make the area a plastic bag-free zone (see picture). The
City of Edinburgh Council supported the project with a £2,500 Waste
Action Grant.

"We realised that
between just four local shops we were generating 46,000 plastic bags a
month and found it to be a shocking reality," said Monica Higgins, Chairperson of the Marchmont & Sciennes Business
Association, explaining the reasons behind the project.

"We are offering
this alternative shopper so that plastic bags will become a thing of
the past," added Higgins.

Scottish Bag Tax

The other road explored has been Liberal Democrat SMP Mike Pringle's Bill to introduce a 10p tax on bags. Pringle suggests that Scotland can emulate the success of the bag tax in the Republic of Ireland which saw an estimated 90% drop in bag use after the tax was introduced. However, Pringle's Bill was blocked by the Labour government and he withdrew it in October 2006.

Pringle believes that the voluntary route isn't working. Speaking anecdotally, he cites how the checkouts at his local Tesco, after a blaze of publicity about how it would discourage the use of plastic bags by making them less visible, still had shopping bags sitting on the top of the counter. On the plus side, he believes that as many as half the shoppers at Morrisson's in Gilmerton were bringing their own reusable bags.

Pringle is now hoping that a bag tax will be included in the SNP's Climate Change Bill due to be published soon. He expects that the tax could initially raise £800,000 for Edinburgh.

Even if the SNP don't introduce his tax, Pringle reckons that the placci bag's days are numbered.

"At the end of the day the plastic bag is going to disappear in the next three or four years regardless of whether this legislation is passed."