A planned doubling of the 5p single use carrier bag levy has been scrapped.
The Environment Minister yesterday announced a halt to the proposals, prompting a warm response from retail representatives.
But one anti-litter charity is unhappy with the move, and said even though there are signs of a massive reduction in waste, more could still be done.
Announcing the freeze on the planned increase, which was set to take place from April next year, the SDLP’s Mark H Durkan said: “The recent results show that the 5p levy has produced a step-change in consumer behaviour – leading to a significant reduction in bag numbers. As a result I believe that we do not need to increase the levy to 10 pence.”
However, the minister added he will keep the matter under review.
Last month, the Department of the Environment (D0E) estimated that in a roughly three-month period since the 5p levy came in on April 8, some supermarkets had seen nearly 80 per cent fewer bags being dispensed. So far the levy has raised £885,000 for the DoE, earmarked for community projects.
Ian Humphreys, chief executive of charity Tidy Northern Ireland, backed the rise to 10p saying more could still be done to stop bags blighting the environment. This summer he was told by one tour operator they had cancelled an angling trip to the Strule River area, after visiting and finding it strewn with litter – and one of the most common eyesores on riverbanks are plastic bags.
“It would have been, I suppose, two or three thousand-pounds-worth of income for one place,” he said. “That’s just one example. I’m sure there are others where people just wouldn’t bother saying.”
He said that the DoE’s estimate of an 80 per cent reduction largely tallies with their experience.
“We’re pleased to see it’s had an impact,” he said. “We also would have strongly supported a rise in the disincentive to use those bags. We believe it would have had another impact.”
Friends of the Earth had also been supportive of upping the levy for shoppers.
Yesterday, campaigner Declan Allison said: “ The experience in the Republic of Ireland suggests people quickly got used to the bag tax.
“Increasing the levy in Northern Ireland would ensure it remains a disincentive.”
Meanwhile, the minister still intends to extend the 5p levy to include “low-cost re-usable bags” (that is, those which sell for less than 20p and are not currently subject to the levy), due to take effect next April.
Retail groups were quick to hail the decision.
The Northern Ireland Retail Consortium’s Aodhan Connolly, representing a string of heavyweight companies, called it a “common sense approach”.
He also acknowledged that, while not backing the rise to 10p, the consortium was also not seeking a removal of the 5p rate on carrier bags.
Meanwhile, the Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association, representing smaller shops, also gave a thumbs-up to the scrapping of the planned rise.
Another organisation which embraced the move was the Green Party.
Its sole MLA Steven Agnew sent out a statement reading: “I welcome the fact the Environment Minister feels that increasing the levy is not necessary as the initial legislation has produced a relatively willing change in consumers’ behaviour.”
Meanwhile, DUP MLA Jim Wells, known to have a particular interest in environmental matters, had initially supported the rise to 10p.
But yesterday he said he has seen a “sea change” in shoppers’ behaviour, and would be happy to leave it as it stands for the time being.