250 million reasons why we must pursue a green future
The introduction of a levy on carrier bags in Northern Ireland from next week should just be the first of ground-breaking new policies, says Environment Minister Alex Attwood
It is startling but true. In Northern Ireland we use 250 million bags a year.
That is 140 for every man, woman and child. We all know the consequences. Discarded bags litter our streets, hedgerows, rivers and coastlines. They pose a threat to our wildlife. They take hundreds of years to decompose. Even if bags are biodegradable and compostable, producing and transporting vast numbers wastes resources.
Part of the character of this place is that we are clean and green. It is a part of our appeal to visitors. So we simply need to tackle our use of bags.
From April 8, shops in Northern Ireland will be charging at least 5p for each new single-use carrier bag that they supply to their customers. That's one way of living up to our green and clean credentials, another way to tackle climate change.
The carrier bag levy will be a real win-win for the environment. In Wales for example, over the last 18 months, there were reductions of up to 90% in the number of single-use carrier bags issued by supermarkets. In the Republic of Ireland, that has been the same experience over the last decade.
And the money that will be raised will fund a broad range of voluntary and community groups, charities, schools and business to take forward environmental projects.
It is a green levy for green causes.
There are exemptions from the levy on grounds of patient confidentiality, hygiene and food safety, bags used to contain items issued on prescription, unpackaged food, packaged uncooked fish, meat or poultry.
This makes sense and shows a balanced approach where good grounds exist to do so.
There will also be exemptions for bags used to carry takeaway hot food and hot drinks. In this way, I decided to be very different from Wales.
This exemption doesn't just apply to dedicated takeaways – it also covers the sale of these items in supermarkets, deli counters and other retail outlets.
I stress that the levy doesn't just apply to single-use plastic bags – but also single-use bags made from other natural materials.
Even biodegradable bags have a negative impact. I want to tackle the unnecessary use of bags.
The legislation therefore provides for a levy on all single-use bags. Let's move away from being a throwaway society. Carrier bag charging is only one part of a much broader environmental agenda.
I want to see bold new laws that deepen our clean, green credentials – a robust Climate Change Act, a challenging Marine Bill, renewable energy and technology.
As Ireland's biggest economic opportunity, the aim for this small place to be a world leader in carbon reduction, will all help to do that.
From April 8, shops have a legal requirement to pass the levy on to their customers.
By now, all sellers should have received details of how to register. If not, they should contact the department quickly.
I do appreciate that we are breaking new ground.
It will take a little time for everyone to adapt.
But the threat of climate change, the scary speed of global warming, the need to send out big statements about a green future, mean the carrier bag levy is the right way to go for us.