UK - Shoppers say no to plastic bag levy


The British public has delivered an overwhelming snub to the UK government's push to introduce a plastic bag levy at supermarkets to tackle climate change.

An exclusive survey for The Times - conducted by Populus - has revealed that shoppers would rather see throw-away plastic bags scrapped altogether, than pay any charge at all, however small. The vast majority - 72 per cent - believe that incentives such as offering reward points at the checkout are the best way to effect a change in behaviour.

Tesco championed this approach when it was pilloried last month for refusing to follow Marks & Spencer and introduce a 5p fee at the till. M&S will start to charge customers in its food halls next month.

Alistair Darling told supermarkets in last month's UK budget that he expected them either to abolish plastic bags or to start charging, to encourage a switch to green alternatives. Nearly 13 billion plastic bags are handed-out at tills every year and the UK Chancellor said that legislation would be introduced if the supermarkets failed to force a change in behaviour through their own initiative.

The Times' survey also reveals that shoppers want supermarkets to tackle all packaging waste, rather than focus squarely on carrier bags. Nearly 70 per cent said that they wanted Britain's big grocers to commit themselves to removing all packaging on all fruit and vegetables - up from 60 per cent a year ago.

Sir Terry Leahy, Tesco's chief executive, has argued that shoppers need to be encouraged to change their behaviour rather than be forced to do so. Tesco awards 'green Clubcard points' to customers who re-use bags, regardless of what store they come from. It has cut the number that it gives away at the checkout by 1.3 billion since August 2006.

A spokesman said - "We have proved what can be achieved through offering the carrot rather than the stick - and that, for us, is the way ahead."

Tesco is still seen as being far less effective in tackling social and environmental issues than its leading rivals. The Co-op is judged the most successful in addressing issues - such as working conditions, carbon footprint and its general use of resources.

M&S is voted second after the high-profile launch of its environmental action plan - 'Plan A' - a year ago. This contains 100 pledges - including commitments to stop sending waste to landfill and to become carbon neutral by 2012. An M&S spokeswoman insisted recently that the retailer still believed it was right to introduce a charge for plastic bags, pointing to the results of a trial in the South West of England and in Ireland - where usage was cut by 70 per cent and there was no impact on business. She added that, from now, customers would be given a free 'bag for life'.

Giles Gibbons, head of Good Business, the environmental consultancy, said of The Times' survey - "These results show that people simply do not like being told what to do - or, what not to do. Taking bags away altogether sounds drastic - but, like the smoking ban, if people are given long enough to prepare, it can work."