This February Prime Minister Gordon Brown made a stirring speech about the high number of plastic bags being used in the UK every year. He called upon the public, store owners and the government itself to take responsibility for ending the damage they cause to the environment.

The statement had an immediate impact around the country and c-store owners decided to introduce initiatives to lower the number of plastic bags they gave out. However, in the seven months since this speech the only progress made by the government has been from climate change Minister Joan Ruddock, who called on the larger retail chains to cut plastic bag use by 70% by spring 2009. While this number can be achieved, it is very hard to do so without charging for the bags - and this risks losing customers.

When the government first spoke out on the plastic bag dilemma, C-Store canvassed views from a range of retailers who had already introduced novel ways to cut their plastic bag quota. So how are they faring seven months down the line?

When we last spoke with Keith Heffernan, he was running two Budgens stores in Dorset and had cut the number of plastic bags he was giving out from 4,000 a week to just 500. He was also charging 10p per plastic bag, which went to local charities. Since implementing the scheme, he had raised more than £600 for good causes.

However, earlier this year Keith sold his Dorset stores and opened a new Budgens in Trowbridge,
Wiltshire, where his plastic bag scheme met with some opposition. "In my last store, I had a few grumbles, but when people realised it was for a good cause they usually paid up," he says. "But in the new store, even though I only charged 5p for a bag, there were huge complaints about it. It even got to the stage where shopping baskets were going missing!"

Since then Keith has stopped charging for plastic bags, but all is not lost. "We've raised some awareness for the plastic bag issue and we've brought our plastic bag output down from 4,000 to 2,000. A lot more people in the store are using a bag-for-life, so at least we're making some progress."

Keith hopes that this progress will continue as he has huge concerns about the environment: "In my last store, I implemented a plastic bag scheme before the government raised the matter. I hope that we can get it down even more than we have so far."

Michelle Gravelle has been doing her bit in the Budgens store she runs in Hertfordshire. She moved the free plastic bags under the counter so that customers wouldn't just help themselves, and sold reusable bags for 10p each. She also enlisted local schools to design an eco-bag. In the seven months prior to the Prime Minister's speech, Michelle had saved a massive 400,000 bags. Has she kept up this fantastic momentum?

"We've started putting the bags under the counter in our second store and it's been quite successful," says Michelle. "We're also going to start charging 2p a bag in both stores and donate all of the money to charity. "That will come into effect this November."

Michelle is confident that the 2p charge won't cause the customers to complain. "If we had done this a year ago it would have been a different story," she says. "Now people almost expect it. We've actually had a few people asking when we're going to introduce it."

Plastic bag facts
● An estimated 500 billion to 1 trillion plastic bags are consumed worldwide every year - 13 billion within the UK

● Only 1 in 200 plastic bags is recycled

● A plastic bag can break down in as little as 15 years, but it can also take up to 1,000

● At least 80 towns in Britain have banned plastic bags or are considering a ban. Brighton and Hove council is the largest authority so far to offer support for a ban

● Plastic bags kill at least 100,000 animals every year

● On average, a person uses a plastic bag for 12 minutes before discarding it.
To help her customers get used to the change, Michelle will be giving out free bags for life for the first few weeks. She's happy to give them away without charge as she feels strongly about the plastic bag issue. "The amount of bags that are used once and thrown away is unnecessary," she claims. "I think that everybody wants to do their bit, but they need to get into the habit of bringing their own bags."

She doesn't think much of the government's threat to bring in a charge on plastic bags if the amount isn't reduced by 70% and sees it as another stealth tax. "They've caught on to the attention that the plastic bag issue is receiving and decided to jump on the bandwagon while hoping to introduce another tax," she says.

Michelle believes that a blanket ban on plastic bags may be the ultimate solution, but until then is doing what she can to send out the right message.

While Michelle has kept up the good work, other c-store owners around the country are having problems maintaining their initiatives, especially in the wake of increased competition.

Conrad Davies, who owns a Spar store in Pwllheli, Caernarfonshire, believes that the whole initiative has run out of steam and that pressure must be put on the supermarkets to charge for plastic bags. "If a convenience store starts charging for bags, people will just start shopping elsewhere, but if a big chain such as Tesco decides to do something to reduce plastic bag waste by charging, then everyone would take notice."

Conrad himself is not in a position to charge for bags as increased competition in the area means that he has to do his best to hold onto customers. He offers hessian bags for 99p to shoppers and encourages them to not use plastic, however this is falling on deaf ears in some cases. "Some people really don't give a monkeys about the environment and some won't take a bag no matter what. There are two major extremes when it comes to plastic bags," says Conrad.

He adds that the only alternative the government may have left is to look to the Irish model and introduce a charge across the board. "I wish there had been more momentum all the way through," he says. "It all started so well and now it may be the case that the only way to cut down on bags is to introduce a tax on them for the customers."

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