Something in the business news caused a lot of passionate reactions among the English this week. It wasn’t Volkswagen’s “Dieselgate” scandal – that has gone by with barely a murmur, despite well over a million drivers in Britain being affected. No… the thing that appears to have got our national knickers in a twist is the notion of paying five pence for a disposable carrier bag.
At first glance, that makes the English seem petty, not least because the amount is very small when compared to our grocery bills, and because anybody who’s been on a European holiday (plus anybody who shops at Marks & Spencer) will have become used to paying for bags. So why all the fuss? Is Britain sliding back into becoming ‘The Dirty Man of Europe’, as some European politicians used to delight in labelling us, back in the late 1980s, before the “Dash for Gas”?
In reality, there are good reasons for debate – even heated debate – on the subject of plastic shopping bags, and their environmental harm. There are more than a few misconceptions about them, as you will find if you’re brave enough to venture into the readers’ comments section of a major media website. One recurring question is “Why can’t shops all provide paper bags instead?” This falls into the trap of assuming that ‘biodegradable’ can be considered to mean ‘benign’.
The poor old HDPE single-use bag gets such a bad press, doesn’t it? Fortunately, others have already done a life cycle analysis of various types of bag, so we don’t have to. The problem, it’s clear, is that there’s an awful lot more work and material in a ‘Bag For Life’ than in one of the disposable ones. A study by the UK Environment Agency found the following:
Aussie researchers Hyder Consulting also got in on the act in 2007, producing a very thorough report that details a wider range of bag types, and also studies factors such as water usage. While I’m at it I should also give a “shout out” to Patcharaporn Musuwan, a former dissertation student of mine who studied this topic at the University of Nottingham, back in 2010.
When we consider that the ‘disposable’ HDPE bag often makes its final journey into the afterlife in the form of a bin-liner, its disposal actually serves a useful purpose, and further delays the point at which reusing one of the more durable bags pays off. Then there’s (perhaps) the question of hygiene, if you’re repeatedly reusing calico bags.
So there’s a strong case in favour of the HDPE bag… but even tiny quantities of plastics add up when national consumption is counted in the billions. As many as 7,600,000,000 bags were used in England last year, which the BBC reports to be 61,000 tonnes of the things. We’re talking about England here because, unusually, each part of the UK has separate schemes. Wales (2011), Northern Ireland (2013) and Scotland (2014) all have bag charging in place.
It’s known that a compulsory charge for bags reduces the demand for them quite sharply, by prompting people to bring their own. In a sense we can almost regard the earlier introduction of charging in the less populous parts of the UK as something of a practice run… although if so, why is it that the new rules for shops in England are far less workable than those elsewhere?
Legislators exempted small companies (those employing fewer than 250 staff) from the obligation to charge for bags, in order to spare them an administrative burden. That sounds reasonable… except that some branches of well-known small shops such as Spar, Budgens, Costcutter and Subway will be exempt because they are small franchises… while other shops that have the same name over the door must apply the charge.
With me so far? Now, you still qualify for a free bag if buying buying raw meat, poultry or fish, or prescription medicine, flowers, potatoes, take-aways…
Among those exempt from applying the charge, some are planning to charge anyway, the Association of Convenience Stores reveals… which gives them a nice little bonus, at the cost of potentially exposing front-line staff to verbal abuse from disgusted customers.
This seems like a good point to wheel out one of my favourite quotes. It’s said by Mr Bumble in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist:
“The law is an ass.”
I’ll be delighted if the change means fewer plastic bags end up in the sea, but as usual we’re seeing that legislation is a blunt instrument, poorly suited to making people and companies do the right thing. It’s not all doom and gloom, though: at least there have been a few chuckles along the way.
“Suddenly that huge collection of carrier bags in my kitchen cupboard is worth a small fortune,” one Twitter user quipped – and Internet satirists have been merciless since October 5th, “bag day”, began. For example…
#Plasticbagchaos. It’s the end of the world as we know it (and I feel fine).