Leading by example

Sat, Feb 9, 2008, 00:00

Five years after Ireland's plastic bag levy was introduced, countries around the world are taking note. Brian O'Connellgoes shopping to test it out.

Who would have thought that the humble plastic bag could cause so much bother? This week, the New York Times carried a report from Dublin on Ireland's pioneering efforts in the fight against the plastic carrier bag. The reporter pointed out that where Ireland led, others are now attempting to follow, with a host of countries from China to Australia seeking to ban outright or limit the use of plastic bags. In countries such as Rwanda, Somaliland and Bangladesh, a ban is being sought to help free up clogged sewerage systems. Next summer, China will attempt to ban free bags in marketplaces, while Australia and the UK are also giving the issue serious thought. All over the US, too, individual states are attempting to limit the use of plastics by consumers, despite pressures from big business. Campaigners point to the damage to the environment by irresponsible hoarding and dispensing of plastics, which can take up to 200 years to break down naturally. Handing out such materials en masse and storing them needlessly is out of synch with a reuse/recycle generation, they argue.

Ireland's levy on plastic bags, introduced in 2002, was a genuinely pioneering move aimed at tackling both an environmental and medical issue. According to the New York Times, carrying a plastic bag in Ireland has now become become socially unacceptable, "on a par with wearing a fur coat or not cleaning up after one's dog".

There was a time though, not so long ago, when Irish consumers were far from conscientious about how much plastic they used. Prior to the introduction of the levy, the Department of Environment estimate that over 1.2 billion plastic bags were given free of charge at retail outlets in Ireland annually. That equates to roughly 328 bags for every person in the country. For a while in the late 1990s, the lonesome plastic bag fluttering from hedgerow to hedgerow threatened to become as iconic an Irish image as thatched cottages and turf.

The decision to introduce the plastic bag levy was also influenced, in part, by Ireland's economic growth in the 1990s, which saw a dramatic rise in plastic bag consumption. It is estimated that, since March 2002, there has been a 90 per cent reduction in plastic bag litter, with the Revenue Commissioners realising more than €92 million in revenue to date. But, more importantly, according to the Department of Environment, "as an awareness-raising initiative and in influencing behavioural change by consumers, it has been invaluable." In the process it also had a profound effect on our outlook and helped advance the greening of the nation.

Or did it? Some have argued that we are in danger of bending the rules on our plastic bag levy. Grocery shops, especially local ones, will often try squeezing as many goods as possible into smaller bags, thereby sidestepping the levy. The initial "ouch" factor of having to pay for a bag is no longer a deterrent.

THE RECENT INCREASE in the bag levy from 15 to 22 cents was a reaction to statistics showing a slight decrease in compliance rates, from a high of 94 per cent down to 90 per cent.

I decided to put our plastic bag restrictions to the test in Cork this week. First stop was Murray's Centra Supermarket, close to Mayfield on Cork's north side. Of the five students ahead of me at the cash desk, none asked for or was given a plastic bag. The one lady who was using a bag to carry her shopping had a reuseable one. I had three items, and asked for and was charged for a standard size carrier bag.

Impressive, given that the cashier was my next-door neighbour. In retail since 1990, owner Ken Murray says that 95 per cent of his customers don't mind paying for their bags, especially as they are aware that it's the government driving the issue. "You get the odd comment from people, all right, and again recently, when the levy was raised, some people commented. I've noticed that 50 per cent of people, though, forget to bring a bag with them. Here we would go through about 3,000 bags a week. To put that in perspective, when I was manager of a standard-sized Tesco branch some years ago, we were going through 30-40,000 bags a week."

Once the levy was introduced, Murray says, that figure was reduced to about 5,000 bags a week. "There is more discipline on the part of both the retailer and also the customer nowadays. Thankfully, we have moved on from the days when bags were handed out in bulk, and often stored or thrown out."

At the English Market in the heart of Cork city, a large queue was forming at O'Connell's fish store. My purchase of a trout fillet came in a sealed paper wrapper. I didn't ask for a bag, but was given one anyway, as were the other 12 customers at the counter. When I expressed surprise at not having to pay, the counter assistant said, "They're just under the size you have to pay for, so we don't charge. We're nice that way." Across Patrick Street, at the manned checkout in Tesco's on Paul Street, the cashier didn't ask if I wanted a plastic bag. She assumed I had no need for one, given that I had only two items. Nearby, at the self-service checkout, a member of staff was on hand to provide bags to customers who specifically asked for them. "Pretty much everybody buys a bag," she said, "although people are a lot more careful about how many they need."

Environmental campaigners worldwide are now pointing to Ireland's change of mindset in the battle against plastic. Darren Johnson, a Green Party member of the London Assembly, recently visited Ireland and came away impressed with our plastic bag revolution. Johnson is now fighting hard for a bill to be passed in the British Parliament, which would tackle the issue.

"It seems an easy system to implement in Ireland," he says. "I am pushing for a nationwide ban in the UK, but it's not going to be easy." Central government in the UK is not taking this issue as seriously as it should, Johnson argues, and it could do worse than cast a glance across the Irish Sea. "From what I have seen in Ireland, the levy has been a really positive experience. Plastics are becoming a huge issue."

ACCORDING TO THE UN Environment Programme, plastic debris causes the deaths of more than one million seabirds every year, as well as more than 100,000 marine mammals. Experts believe that plastic constitutes 90 per cent of all rubbish floating in the oceans, while the UN Environment Programme estimated in 2006 that every square mile of ocean contains 46,000 pieces of floating plastic. What goes in the ocean goes into animals and often finds its way onto our dinner plates. This message, campaigners say, is finally beginning to hit home.

Back in Cork, my final test of the evening was at a local pizza outlet. It was teeming with rain outside and, having already ordered and paid for my food, I casually asked for a carrier bag before leaving. One was promptly given free of charge. "Don't I owe you more money for the bag?" I asked.

"Ah no, you're grand, sure we have loads of them," came the carefree reply.