Our work to introduce a charge for carrier bags in Wales is continuing at pace and by spring next year the volume of free bags that we amass whilst shopping in supermarkets, local shops and clothes stores will be a thing of the past.
Although we have become much better at reusing bags over the last few years, in Wales alone we still collectively managed to use more than 400 million carrier bags last year.
Most of these bags end up clogging up the cupboard under the stairs, shoved in the boot of our cars, littering our countryside or rotting in landfill and releasing harmful greenhouse gasses into the environment.
And whilst it is all too quick and easy to take advantage of yet another free bag when shopping for bread and milk, the fact that we know that each bag actually takes between 500 and 1000 years to degrade shows that the environmental cost is far from minimal
Of course I appreciate that banning free carrier bags is not going to solve all our environmental problems but by introducing the carrier bag charge, we can make a real statement about the need for us to move away from some of the wasteful and throwaway habits we have developed as a society in favour of a way of life that is much more sustainable and kind to our environment.
Happily, we have cross party support for the carrier bag charge, and we know that it is a policy that is supported by people across Wales. Indeed a BBC poll in 2007 identified that it was the one of key policies that that the Welsh public wanted to see the Welsh Assembly Government introduce in the current Assembly term.
Wales will actually be the first part of the UK to introduce a mandatory charge for carrier bags and I am delighted that Wales is leading the way on this issue, however from an international perspective we are certainly not blazing a trail. All over the world action is already being taken against single-use carrier bags. In China, Japan, Iceland, Finland, Malta and parts of the United States some form of charge is the norm. And close to home the Republic of Ireland have proved how successful a charge can be and have seen the number of carrier bags used plummet by 90% since introducing their charge in 2002.
Back In June I launched a second consultation on the carrier bag charge to gather views on some of the finer details of the charge. The consultation recommended among other things a 7p charge for all single use carrier bags –whether made of plastic or paper. It also set out proposed exemptions for certain types of bags used to carry unpackaged food or pharmacy medicines, and a voluntary agreement with retailers to ensure that profits from the charge are passed to environmental or community projects and good causes.
We have proposed 7p as the level of charge because we think it is high enough to make a difference, and encourage people to remember their reusable bags but not so high that it will stop impulse shopping or create a significant burden for shoppers who have forgotten their bags. We have, of course, sought views in our consultation on whether 7p is an appropriate level for the charge and will be considering those views very carefully before making a final recommendation.
The consultation period has now come to an end and the task of analysing the responses will soon begin in earnest. It is far too early for me to comment on the content of those responses but I am delighted by the volume we have received from retailers, interested groups and members of the public who have taken the opportunity to feed their views into the process.
Once we have fully considered all the responses, we will be finalising the regulations that will be considered in Plenary towards the end of the year. This should allow us to introduce the charge by spring 2011.
I am convinced that the charge will make a significant difference to our carrier bag consumption. Not only that but it gives a clear signal to the rest of the UK and the world that Wales is a country that cares about protecting its beautiful environment.
As I have said before I really do not want the charge to present a financial burden for anyone living or shopping in Wales. I hope it will encourage everyone to shop with reusable bags wherever possible so we can dramatically drive down the number of carrier bags given out in Wales. Most people tell us that they already have a stock of reusable bags – now we all have to remember to use them so that we can all avoid the charge when it comes into force.