Plastic bag charge: Could fee be applied to other packaging?

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A 5p charge for plastic bags in large stores was introduced in England a year ago next week, and research suggests it's had positive environmental effects with usage radically reduced.

Some 90% of shoppers in England now use their own carrier bags, research for Cardiff University has suggested - up from 70% before the levy was introduced. This follows similar results in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

So could similar charges be applied to other items to help the environment?

Plastic bottles

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Elena Sautkina, an expert in environmental psychology, believes that there is a "window of opportunity" to bring in further potential charges against plastic.

"Our research shows people are sensitive right now to the plastic waste arguments," she told the BBC News website.

Dr Sautkina, who was one of the academics behind Cardiff University's research, says bringing in a deposit return scheme for plastic bottles could be one of those ways.

Her research has shown that since the plastic bag charge was introduced public opinion in England has grown towards introducing a similar scheme for plastic bottles.

She surveyed a representative group of people spanning England, Wales and Scotland one month before the 5p bag charge was introduced, a month afterwards, and six months afterwards.

Her results saw what she termed as "strong support" for a plastic bottle deposit scheme grow over time in all three countries - from 33% to 39% in England, 44% to 50% in Wales and from 25% to 34% in Scotland.

The Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) has also called for a bottle deposit return system.

Samantha Harding, litter programme director at CPRE, told the BBC News website that in Germany 98.5% percent of bottles are recycled, and the UK needed to be more "ambitious about what it can achieve".

"Some are opposed [to a deposit system] because they fear bottles will cost more. But a bottle deposit is like any other deposit: it is money that you get back. As long as you return your bottle, you don't pay any more for it."

A spokesman for the Department of Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said: "There remain significant uncertainties regarding the potential impacts and benefits of a deposit and return scheme. We continue to focus on improving existing waste collection and recycling systems for plastic bottles."

Coffee cups

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The coffee cup waste problem is one which has only recently seemed to capture the attention of the general public.

Most consumers wrongly assume that the paper cups used are a "green" choice.

However, to make these cups waterproof, the card is fused with polyethylene, a material that cannot be separated out again in a standard recycling mill - and therefore the cups from many High Street coffee chains cannot be recycled.

Dr Sautkina believes bringing in a charge for disposable coffee cups would garner support.

"People are buying the arguments being made about plastics, and I think charging for coffee cups could work in a similar way," she said.

Greenpeace said that single use items like coffee cups often wound up in the ocean.

"Once there they fragment into smaller pieces, or microplastics, which are eaten by everything from plankton to whales. It's even been revealed that 1 in 3 fish in the English channel have plastic pollution in their gut," said Greenpeace's Louise Edge.

The Liberal Democrats are currently campaigning for 5p charge on coffee cups.

The party's environment spokeswoman Kate Parminter said: "It's a disgrace that seven million cups are thrown away every day, mostly not recycled, and yet the government simply turns a blind eye."

A Defra spokesman said: "While the government acknowledges more needs to be done to recycle coffee cups, there are no plans to tax them."

'Excessive' packaging

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One other area that Dr Sautkina's research team investigated was public opinion towards excessive plastic packaging.

Similar to the attitudes towards plastic bottles, her results suggested rises in support for paying an additional charge for produce that is individually wrapped in plastic.

Again she asked a representative group this question in three phases - one month before, a month after, and six months after the English 5p bag charge was brought in.

The sample size in each of three phases varied from 3,066 people in the first group, to 2,005 people a month afterwards and 1,230 people six months afterwards.

In England, she saw a rise in "strong support" for such a scheme from 33% to 39%, in Wales from 41% to 48% and in Scotland from 25% to 34%.

"As a marker we also asked for public opinion on increases on taxes paid on petrol and there was no such a rise," Ms Sautkina said.

Plastic knives and forks

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In the case of plastic crockery and cutlery the French are planning to go much further than just a small fee, and are looking to ban them entirely unless they are made from biologically sourced materials and can be composted.

The law is not set to come in until 2020 and it forms part of environmental initiative called the Energy Transition for Green Growth Act. France appears to be the first country to introduce a blanket ban plastic cutlery.

Andrew Pendleton, from the campaign group Friends of the Earth said the UK should take heed of France's actions.

"France's bold steps on disposable cutlery provide the template to follow," he said.

However, the move is not without its opponents. Pack2Go Europe, a Brussels-based organization representing European packaging manufacturers, has said it intends to fight the French decision in the fear other countries will also adopt such a stance.

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