Plastic bags pollute, and we should pay

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We hope that other retailers will follow the DIY giant B&Q in charging customers for each plastic bag they use. Anything that suppresses our society's voracious appetite for these pollutants is to be welcomed.

We hope that other retailers will follow the DIY giant B&Q in charging customers for each plastic bag they use. Anything that suppresses our society's voracious appetite for these pollutants is to be welcomed.

Britain uses 500 million plastic bags every week, and each one takes hundreds of years to decay in rubbish dumps and landfill sites. That is, of course, presuming they get that far. Thousands of bags litter our streets, clog up our rivers and disfigure the appearance of the countryside. They are a threat to our wildlife population. The qualities that have made plastic bags popular with shoppers - their durability and lightness - have also made them a menace to our environment.

Having grown used to the idea that a large pile of free plastic bags will be waiting at the end of the supermarket checkout, we are now too careless to dispose of them responsibly. Easy come, easy go is often the modern consumer's philosophy. It would simply not occur to many of us that bags could be re-used in future shopping trips. This is an attitude that clearly has to change if we want to avoid choking our environment with plastic.

But there are some encouraging signs. Two years ago the Irish government imposed a modest tax on plastic bags, resulting in a 90 per cent cut in their use. A Mori poll last year discovered that a majority of British people would be willing to pay a similar levy. This suggests Britons broadly accept the principle of green taxation - namely that prices should reflect the environmental cost. Rather than harming the free market, such an approach will ultimately maximise economic efficiency. Plastic bags may be cheap, but it would be cheaper still for retailers not to have to provide them in such vast numbers.

Rather than leaving it to B&Q and other retailers to take a lead, the Government should demonstrate its vaunted green credentials by introducing a tax on plastic bags. The revenue should then be used to clear up the mess they have created over the years. The polluter should pay and, when it comes to plastic bags, we are all of us polluters.

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