James Moore: Bags are a problem, whatever the BRC says

Outlook The British Retail Consortium was hoping to bag itself and its members a pat on the back yesterday by releasing figures showing that the number of plastic carriers handed out has fallen by 4.6 billion since 2006. "A tremendous achievement," the BRC gushed. "A ringing endorsement of the voluntary approach."

Steady on there. From reading the press release, anyone would think Tesco and pals had discovered the secret to making cheap and efficient solar power, found a cure for the common cold and discovered the location of the legendary lost continent of Atlantis.

It is indeed good news that there are fewer carrier bags filling up Britain's rapidly diminishing supply of landfill sites than there were. But in the year ending 31 May 2010 an astonishing 6.1 billion were still handed out. So while the number of bags being given out has declined, and the way they are made makes them marginally less destructive, that still amounts to an awful lot of plastic to be disposed of. What's more, from the BRC's figures, the rate of decline appears to be slowing compared with when the campaign to persuade shoppers to use alternatives was launched.

Supermarkets have traditionally argued against statutory measures to reduce bag use, arguing that they are unnecessary and penalise their customers. I'm not so sure. Plastic bags are the things that are unnecessary – there are now plenty of alternatives available for a small fee. They foul up the environment and cost an awful lot of money to dispose of. Therefore it is not unreasonable to impose a fee on those who choose to use them to cover the cost of that disposal – say 10p a bag or so, collectable as a tax. That's £600m or so of revenues for the Government – a tidy sum when you think about it, particularly given the state of the public finances.

A bag tax will hardly cure the deficit but, as Tesco likes to say, every little helps.