MEP Diana Wallis wants carrier bag tax to protect environment

Shopper carrying plastic bagsImage source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Surplus baggage - should plastic bags be subject to a 'bag tax'?

Every day, tens of thousands of carrier bags are handed out for free at supermarket checkouts and never used again.

So would we be more likely to re-use our bags if we had to pay for them?

Campaigners point to the example of the Republic of Ireland - where a so-called "bag tax" was introduced in 2002 and reduced the number of carrier bags by up to 90%.

Environmentalists say plastic bags cause marine pollution and can take up to 1,000 years to rot away on landfill sites.

Banishing bags

The European Commission recently launched a public consultation on the possibility of introducing a "bag tax".

EU figures reveal a total of 3.4 million tonnes of plastic bags were produced in Europe in 2008, the equivalent of around 2 million cars.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Discarded plastic bags are a mounting environmental problem

Diana Wallis - the Liberal Democrat MEP for Yorkshire and the Humber - has long argued for a levy on plastic carrier bags.

She believes 20p would be enough to encourage shoppers to re-use their bags on their weekly trip to the supermarket.

Ms Wallis said: "I have taken the message to reduce the plastic bag mountain from Barnsley to Scarborough - a message that has met with widespread support.

"It is high time real action was taken to clear the plastic bag mountain and I am delighted the Commission is finally taking the initiative."

Carrot or stick?

However, many retailers fiercely oppose the prospect of passing on a 20p charge to their customers for every bag they use.

The British Retail Consortium says the number of single-use bags has fallen in recent years from 10.6 billion in 2006 to 6.1 billion in 2010.

Some small shops also believe they would be less able to absorb the cost of the tax compared to the big supermarket.

So when it comes to banishing the bags, it seems opinion is divided on whether a carrot or stick approach works best.