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It’s not the second coming, but Wales’s bag charge is welcome and overdue | George Monbiot

Welsh assembly government has stood up to the supermarkets, and hasn’t restricted the charge to plastic bags only

It’s littler and later than first proposed, but I’m not knocking it: the Welsh carrier bag charge is a good thing. Or, to be more precise, it’s a good thing as long as it’s not mistaken for the second coming.

Listening to some people go on about plastic bags, you would think it was the biggest environmental issue of our time. Our mindless consumption of bags is wasteful and unnecessary. They litter the countryside and drift into the sea, where turtles and whales might eat them. They are a powerful symbol of the throwaway society. But their importance has often been wildly overstated.

In a previous article, I worked out that, by weight, carrier bags account for 3.2% of domestic waste, and 0.88% of domestic, industrial and commercial waste (excluding the spoil and rubble produced by the mining and construction industries). Environmental writer George Marshall, in his book Carbon Detox, calculates that our annual average consumption of bags produces 5kg of the 12,500kg of carbon dioxide we each turn out every year. Neither figure makes plastic bags disappear, nor do these comparisons suggest that we shouldn’t be reducing their use, but they do offer some perspective on the scale of the problem.

My concern is that some people appear to believe that if they use fewer plastic bags, or adopt any of the other tokenistic measures on offer, they have made a significant contribution to protecting the environment – and therefore feel justified in flying to Thailand twice a year, or keeping their Agas running through the summer.

The bag charge could have been tougher. When it was first proposed, the Welsh assembly government talked of costs of up to 15p per bag. Then it talked about 7p, now the cost is 5p. It was to have been introduced by May this year, but after representations from business it was knocked on until 1 October.

But these are minor cavils. There are two things worth celebrating here: first that the charge was introduced at all, against the stiff resistance of the supermarkets, secondly that the Welsh government hasn’t done the obvious and easy thing: of limiting the charge to plastic bags. You’ll have to pay for any bags that are not designed to be reused, whether they’re made of plastic, paper or recycled carrot peel.

Campaigns against carrier bags have sometimes given the misleading impression that plastic is bad while paper is good. If you believe that, take a look at what has been happening in Sumatra, where tracts of rainforest are being chewed up and turned into paper, some of which is likely to end up wrapped around your Granny Smiths.

The retailers have insisted that voluntary measures are all that’s needed. As the rising use of bags in England and Scotland shows, they don’t work. The Welsh legislation is an instance of government doing what it’s there for: stepping in to improve our lives when other measures have failed. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds