Of Tax Evasion and Plastic Bags

A busy weekend just past, with a national Green meeting on Saturday, followed by the Remade in Edinburgh event. Then on Sunday it was a protest on Princes Street with Edinburgh Uncut.

Monday 31st January is the deadline for those among us who are self -employed to hand in their self assessment tax returns. There are some wealthy companies and individuals who use their wealth to find ways to avoid paying their fair share, and legislative loopholes let them get away with it. Each year, up to £120bn is lost through tax avoidance. This is quite incredible in the face of cuts to essential public services and members of the public reflected back a collective anger.

Anyway, now it is the week ahead and, as well as Holyrood election campaign, there’s my “day job“ as councillor for Meadows and Morningside. This week it is the first full Council of 2011 and I’ve got two motions to present. I have already blogged on one of them – on school energy costs – and I am pleased that Edinburgh Evening News ran it as the front page story last Friday. But the other motion is equally dear to my heart. It is about plastic bags.

Back in 2007, within a few months of becoming a Green councillor, I called on the city to investigate becoming plastic-bag free. The report that came back, in effect, said that it was all too tricky (even though the entire nation of Italy seems to think it can manage it). Disappointing and frustrating but the wheels of local government can often turn slowly.

But the issue has not gone away. Despite the muscle of the industry, the public have shown themselves way ahead of councils and commercial thinking. Big retailers have had to adapt quickly to public demand for re-usable and durable bags. It is now very common to see people carrying cotton or jute bags (as, of course, was the case only a generation or so ago).

But plastic bags still litter the streets of Edinburgh. They still choke the drains, pose hazards to wildlife and disfigure our stunning city.

Now, I have heard all the arguments against action; that plastic bags, by weight, are only a tiny part of the waste stream. Some people say to me that there are bigger issues to tackle: job security, fuel poverty, bankers’ bonuses. That’s right and I will be doing what I can to highlight each of these areas too. But it is a bit like saying that one should never tackle a more specific issue unless one can do address the strategic things. At worst, that is just a recipe for inertia. For me, plastic bags are an important symbol of a throwaway society. Once people starting thinking about bags, they start thinking about other aspects of that society too.

So that is why my motion to the City Council this week seeks to promote a city-wide reusable bag scheme. It could build on the work of Greener Leith’s “We love Leith“ bonus bag scheme. A city-wide scheme would run with the grain of public opinion and present another opportunity to promote the city to our many visitors.

Surely, Edinburgh can take this opportunity.

PS – big thanks to the Guardian for running the story so positively.