Bill delayed as TUV leader Jim Allister rips into paper bag tax
The public has been urged to lobby MLAs so that it won't have to pay a levy on paper bags.
It comes after Environment Minister Mark H Durkan took a "time-out" and postponed the consideration stage of the Carrier Bags Bill – a law that would have extended the bag levy to any reusable bags priced at less than 20p.
The minister took the step after TUV leader Jim Allister proposed an amendment that would have exempted paper bags from the levy, saying that the Department of the Environment now wanted to impose the tax on bags of all materials. Mr Allister argued that paper bags were fully biodegradable and, as in the Republic, shouldn't be included in the levy.
However the DoE has insisted that paper bags are already included in the 5p levy scheme introduced by the Assembly last year, and exempting paper bags would represent a fundamental change to the existing policy.
It also pointed out that manufacturing paper bags resulted in carbon emissions that were almost three times higher than for plastic bags.
Yesterday the DoE explained why it was postponing the consideration stage of the Bill, saying: "Minister Durkan remains committed to progressing the second phase of the Carrier Bags Bill through the Assembly and will be seeking to reschedule further consideration stage at the earliest possible opportunity.
"The effect of the amendments tabled by Mr Allister, if approved by the Assembly, would be to exclude bags made wholly or mainly from paper from the carrier bag charging arrangements.
"There already is a levy on paper bags agreed by the Executive and the Assembly as part of the legislation introduced in April 2013. Retailers are already charging for paper bags and the arrangements are working well."
The DoE said the minister was taking a "brief time-out" to ensure his Executive and Assembly colleagues fully "back the decision they made last April, and ensure that policy on paper bags is clear and 'up front'.
Last night Mr Allister said that the move showed the minister was unsure of gaining sufficient support to defeat the amendments.
"The mischief to which the carrier bag tax was supposed to be addressed is the pollution of plastic bags," he said.
"So why were any paper bags, which are biodegradable, included in the first place?
"Already in my constituency jobs have been lost among suppliers.
"I would therefore encourage ordinary members of the public to lobby their local MLAs to ensure that we no longer have to pay this unjust tax on paper bags," he added.
Emission test results show that plastic is greener
Paper carrier bags are not a harmless alternative to plastic bags, the DoE has insisted.
The department says that while the bags are biodegradable, their manufacture and use produces three times as many carbon emissions as plastic bags.
"Huge amounts of energy, water, bleaches and chemicals go into the manufacture of paper bags – exacting a heavy environmental impact – including atmospheric acidification and eutrophication of water bodies through air and water pollution," a spokesman said.
"Paper bags are typically heavier and bulkier than plastic bags and therefore impose a greater transport burden, resulting in greater carbon emissions."
The department cited a UK Environment Agency life cycle assessment in 2006, which concluded that a month's-worth of paper bags resulted in carbon emissions of 5.52kg, compared to 2.08kg for a month's-worth of single use plastic bags.
"Based on the EA's life cycle assessment, paper bags need to be reused at least three times in order to have less of a carbon impact than a single use plastic bag," the spokesman said.
The report has recommended English carrier bag levies should be extended to paper bags, in line with Wales and Northern Ireland, and the plans being introduced in Scotland.
The DoE said: "One estimate suggests that paper bag consumption in Ireland has increased by 80% since the introduction of the plastic bag tax there. This has led to calls for the plastic bag levy in Ireland to be extended to paper bags."