Seanad debates

Thursday, 1 March 2012

1:00 pm

Photo of Caít KeaneCaít Keane (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State for coming into the House to discuss the issue of the plastic bag levy on biodegradable bags. There is a difference between biodegradable and degradable plastic bags.

On 4 March 2002 the Government introduced a levy on plastic carrier bags. It was, primarily, an anti-litter initiative to positively change consumer habits. It was a most welcome development. I absolutely recommend that it remain in place.

The first objective has been achieved, with fewer carrier bags being sold. However, research has shown that paper bag use has increased extensively. These have been proved to be even more damaging to the environment than plastic bags owing to the volume and cost of their production. For this reason, there have been calls from several environmental groups, including Friends of the Irish Environment, for paper bags to be incorporated in the levy.

The paper bag production process causes 70% more atmospheric pollution and uses 300% more energy than comparable production of plastic bags. The House recently debated the issue of energy and I ask the Minister to take this aspect into consideration. Paper bags that have been laminated to make them weatherproof - they have a shiny finish and we all carry them home from the shops - are not subject to the levy. They should be. These paper bags are supplied free of charge in retail stores. We should consider the damage they do to the environment and include them in the levy, as the legislation states bags made wholly or partly of plastic are liable to the levy. It should not make a difference that a bag is lined with paper. I, therefore, ask the Minister to consider making this type of bag subject to the levy, given the environmental damage this covering causes.

Consumer purchasing habits are changing. Research shows that the levy has affected the sale of plastic bin liners and nappy bags which has, in turn, added extensively to the amount of plastic going to landfill. The sale of biodegradable plastic bags has also increased since the introduction of the levy. The issue with this type of bag is that they can contain high levels of plastic. There are no controls over the plastic content and they may take up to five years to degrade. This aspect must be looked at.

Through the introduction of brown wheelie bins for compost waste, the Government has given the general public an outlet to recycle food waste, but this has also raised serious issues. Rodents, flies and odours are obvious immediate problems that the public faces. However, there is also a hidden hygienic health and safety aspect. The bins are seldom completely emptied. When they are collected, the residue within them is a breeding ground for bacteria and flammable gases. To help contain this problem, waste collection companies agree that lining a brown bin with a 100% compostable liner cuts back on a high percentage of these issues. In fact, some companies now supply these liners to their customers free of charge. I ask the Minister, in the next tender, to ensure all companies are asked to supply them free of charge.

There is a difference between a biodegradable bag and a compostable bag, despite the fact that compostable bags are considered to be biodegradable. The prefix "bio" should not be used when describing compostable bags, as they take only 12 weeks to break down. They are made from corn starch and break down in composting environments by natural means into simple elements such as carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. They are totally environmentally friendly and should be free of a levy, which is what we are looking for.

On 1 January 2011 Italy introduced a ban on all plastic carrier bags, following a report that showed Italian consumers were using more than 300 bags per person per year. Stores in Italy are now only allowed to offer fully biodegradable, cloth or paper bags. In Italy the fully biodegradable bags are actually compostable bags. Standard biodegradable bags take up to five years to break down. These are the ones that featured in the court case involving Dunnes Stores. The type of plastic bag used for fruit and vegetables should be levied and they are covered by the legislation. Similar bans have been imposed in France, Mexico City, Australia, South Africa and Taiwan.

According to a recent EuroCommerce report, Ireland did not consider compostable bags when the levy was introduced. The reason given was most probably that it would have been almost impossible at the time to determine the difference between a compostable bag and a plastic bag when waste was being collected. The broader concept of sustainability was also not taken into account with regard to paper bags or the life cycle assessment, LCA, of compostable bags, according to the same report. The segregation of compostable bags and plastic bags is no longer a problem, as every household in Ireland has, or will soon have, access to a compostable collection facility, either by brown bin, self-drop system or composting in a home composting system. The distinction between compostable and biodegradable bags must be made and reflected in legislation. They can be recognised instead as degradable.

This would not mean a huge decrease in Government revenue, but it would be a huge positive step in protecting the environment. The profit made by SMEs would be around €4 million instead of a loss of around €2 million. We all know what jobs mean to SMEs. These savings could be used to help businesses to continue trading and increase job opportunities within the industry. I, therefore, ask the Minister to consider the proposal to remove the levy on compostable bags which are fully degradable in the light of the evidence which suggests it would be a logical move. It would be environmentally friendly, energy saving and pro-job creation. The technology is available to differentiate between bags that have no plastic content and those that have some.

Photo of Róisín ShortallRóisín Shortall (Dublin North West, Labour)
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I thank the Senator for raising this issue, to which I am responding on behalf of the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Phil Hogan.

Since its introduction on 4 March 2002 the plastic bag levy has been an outstanding success and instrumental in changing consumer behaviour in discouraging the use of plastic bags. The levy applies to all bags made wholly or partly of plastic, subject to specific exemptions set out in the legislation, of which the most important is that plastic bags designed for reuse are exempt from the levy, provided the retailer charges at least 70 cent for the bag.

The legislation does not distinguish between biodegradable plastic bags and other plastic bags. Biodegradable bags still take a considerable time to degrade and while their use may be preferable in a final treatment or disposal, such bags will continue to have an environmental impact for a significant period. One of the prime objectives of the levy is to influence consumers to change their shopping practice by encouraging the use of reusable shopping bags. I am concerned that exempting biodegradable bags from the levy could encourage retailers to change from dispensing non-biodegradable bags to dispensing biodegradable bags, thereby failing to achieve any change in consumer behaviour in terms of reuse.

In addition, there would be practical difficulties for consumers, retailers and enforcement agencies in distinguishing between biodegradable and non-biodegradable plastic bags. One of the reasons for the success of the plastic bag levy is its simplicity. If a bag contains plastic, then it is, subject to certain limited exemptions, leviable. Local authorities are central to the enforcement of the levy through visiting retail outlets to carry out inspections. While it is relatively simple for an enforcement officer to determine whether a bag contains plastic, it would be extremely difficult to ascertain in the course of an on-the-spot check whether that plastic was biodegradable. Likewise, consumers who have generally been extremely supportive of the levy would not be able to tell whether the bag with which they had been supplied was biodegradable.

It is important to note that the plastic bag levy was primarily introduced as an anti-litter initiative. Data from the national litter pollution monitoring system are used to measure the impact of measures such as the plastic bag levy on litter. While plastic bags accounted for approximately 5% of litter arisings prior to the introduction of the levy, the most recent survey data, for 2010, show that they constituted approximately 0.25% of litter pollution nationally. Biodegradable plastic bags may take up to five years to degrade and thus cause a visible litter problem, thereby undoing much of what has been achieved in removing the blight of plastic bag litter from Ireland's landscape.

The plastic bag levy has been an outstanding success in reducing litter and changing consumer behaviour from the use of single-use bags to reusable bags. A national survey of the environment in 2003 indicated that 90% of shoppers were using reusable or long-life bags. Therefore, in the interests of maintaining the simple and effective levy system in place, it is not proposed to exclude biodegradable plastic bags from the levy.

Photo of Caít KeaneCaít Keane (Fine Gael)
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I agree with much of what the Minister of State said, but it entirely missed the point of what I am trying to achieve. To clarify, I am totally in favour of the plastic bag levy. The Minister of State's main point was that it would be impossible to distinguish between a biodegradable and a non-degradable bag. That is like saying it is impossible to ascertain how much lead is in diesel. All I am asking is that legislation be introduced to allow for the inclusion of a symbol - a red triangle, for example - on plastic bags that are degradable in 12 weeks. I am fully supportive of the retention of the levy on biodegradable bags because there is plastic in them. However, new technologies have been developed which have vastly improved the timeframe for biodegradability. The inclusion of a symbol such as a red triangle would inform consumers of this. In the longer term these are the only plastic bags which should be permitted to be sold. It has been done in Italy and there is no reason it cannot be done here.

Photo of Róisín ShortallRóisín Shortall (Dublin North West, Labour)
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I am happy to convey the Senator's view to the Minister.