Bags of opportunity for good

A blog post by Catherine Gee

Catherine Gee
Deputy Chief Executive

Posted 13/01/2021

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Making your 10p work for our environment

Single use bags of all shapes and sizes have environmental consequences.

Those made of plastic come from the same source as all plastic: crude oil. Like everything produced from this non-renewable resource, manufacturing it creates considerable carbon dioxide and produces pollution, and the product is not biodegradable and very hard to recycle.

Single use plastic bags are difficult to produce, and nearly impossible to get rid of. Consequently, if irresponsibly disposed of, they last for hundreds of years, choking our rivers, lochs and seas and all too often, quite literally they choke our wildlife.

So, fewer single use plastic bags in circulation is great news for our environment. That is why in 2014 we welcomed the introduction of the single use carrier bag charge, recognising that it was an overwhelmingly positive step for Scotland to take – and the additional good news was that this charge covered non plastic single-use bags too – forcing consumers to look more closely at their non-essential habits. 

Since the charge was introduced there has been a significant reduction reported in the number of single use bags being taken at point of sale – a massive 80% in year one.  This reduction has saved thousands of tonnes of single use materials realising a significant net carbon saving and reducing the chances of these items becoming littered.  

We face a widely accepted climate crisis, and as highlighted in our recently published report, we are lurching towards a litter emergency too so any nudge towards consumer behaviour change has to be a good thing.

Today, 13 January 2021, the Scottish Government has confirmed that the minimum price of a single use carrier bag is set to double from 5p to 10 on 1 April 2021 in a further effort to combat plastic waste.

There is no doubt that the charge has already had a significant effect on the behaviour of many shoppers across the country.  It raised awareness of an underlying consumerism and promoted individual responsibility.

With each reusable bag that is used, we have seen a commitment from individuals to live a bit more sustainably, and to save a little money while supporting the green recovery efforts. 

This is why we are so welcoming of the charge being increased – it will refocus the minds of those who have yet to switch to the reusable option. A higher charge will act to disincentivise people and should make them think harder about accepting bags at the till. It will further challenge individual behaviour and improve consumer awareness.

But there is a second benefit too.  One that is sometimes deemed too ugly to talk about. Money. Funding.  The proceeds of the bag charge, despite significant reductions in take up, are in the £millions - more than 2.5million in 2019 alone.  But, positively most of this money collected across Scotland has supported vital good causes.

So, while we as an environmental charity would like to see the phasing out of all unnecessary single use items, bags included, as we move towards becoming a Net Zero Nation, we can’t hide from the fact that we have also been a beneficiary of the charge.

We fought hard to receive these funds, because we knew how much good we could do with the money to support communities to take action to combat climate change, tackle litter and waste and to protect and enhance their local neighbourhoods.

We’ve developed positive partnerships with a range of well-known high street retailers, and a number of small individual store owners, who understand their responsibilities in helping to tackle Scotland’s environmental issues. 

These retailers have trusted us to do good with the proceeds of the bag charge collected from their customers – and as a result of this, we have invested over £1million since 2014 to widen our reach, distribute funds to others, and to support environmental initiatives involving thousands of people across Scotland.

For example, H&M bag charge donations funded our community activity Beautiful Scotland and It’s Your Neighbourhood for two years and our Young Reporters for the Environment programme has been funded through groupings of smaller donations of bag charge money.

We ran small grant schemes with donations from Tesco in 2015, and invested donations to support our work to help people understand the challenges our environment faces, the actions they can take, and question things more, we can ultimately help drive behaviour change to ensure that we have a net zero nation that is clean and green. 

But this activity costs money.  It costs time.  To broaden our reach and to widen our impact it needs funding. And in these challenging financial times, this income stream has been a welcome boost for many charities, including ourselves.

We have work to do. We need to engage more people to join us on our ambitious journey to make Scotland clean, green and sustainable. The bag charge is one way of making people think about what they consume that is not essential, and what the alternatives are. It is a way of generating much needed funds for environmental charities to support them to provide education, training and support to communities, educators, young people, businesses and others.

More needs to be done.  Much more, if we are to achieve Net Zero by 2045 and if we are to reverse the declining standards of local environmental quality.  

As we look to the future, we want it to be the norm in Scotland for customers to take their own bags to the shop.  But, like we all sometimes do, when they forget and have to pay the charge, we want them to question where their 10p is going. 

Bag charge donations have helped us make a difference locally and nationally to support communities to improve the environmental quality of the places they care about.

And while any charge needs to be considered as part of a wider suite of measures that must be developed and implemented collaboratively, this charge increase is one we welcome and look forward to seeing the impact.

So, next time you hand over 10p for a bag ask yourself, where does my bag charge go?  Then ask your retailer if it goes to support environmental good causes. 

Together we can turn this charge into bags of opportunity for our environment.

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