5p carrier bags? Yes, please!

By Editorial on October 12, 2015

New laws came into force in England this week, charging shoppers 5p per plastic bag from the supermarket – and I, for one, am celebrating!

This has been a long time coming, given that Wales led the way back in 2011, followed by Northern Ireland in 2013 and Scotland in 2014. Similar schemes have been implemented across the world; Germany, Italy, Canada, China, Hong Kong, as well as 133 cities and counties in the USA, are some of the others who have beaten England to it.

Now that English shoppers will be expected to pay for, or re-use, their carrier bags, we could see a potentially huge reduction in the scourge of plastic bags that ruin our environment and pose a danger to our wildlife.

Last year, 7.64bn of the 8.5bn carrier bags given away in British supermarkets were from English stores, and each one of us used an average of 11 bags per month.

Plastic BagsUnbelievably, the cleaning-up costs of discarded plastic bags amounts to an extortionate £10m! Think what else that money could be spent on… schools, hospitals, renewable energy projects. Let’s hope we can start earmarking an extra few million pounds for these better causes now.

Similar schemes have seen a huge decrease in the use of plastic bags. Wales has reported a 71% drop since 2011, and the Republic of Ireland has reported a whopping 90% reduction after charging €0.15 (11p) per bag.

Good news for our environment

So what’s so terrible about plastic bags? Well, aside from the fact they can take 1,000 years to degrade (not all bags are biodegradable), tens of thousands of marine animals are killed every year from plastic bag litter. Whales, seals, birds and turtles often mistake floating bags as food, and as they can’t digest the plastic, it stays in the gut, preventing food digestion and causing severe pain, distress and a very slow death.

The danger extends to our wildlife on land, with foxes, badgers, cats, dogs and hedgehogs being put at risk of ingesting or getting caught in plastic bags.

On top of that, plastic bag litter can turn a beautiful view of the countryside into an eyesore. Unwanted bags are easily whipped up by the wind, getting stuck on fences or in trees, or landing in lakes or rivers. They can also clog up drains, causing needless expense for individuals or local councils.

All in all, they’re just not that great.

Good news for charities

If the environmental impact of 5p carrier bags wasn’t good news enough, the new charge is set to raise much-needed funds for a range of charities.

Although supermarkets have been told they can do what they like with the majority of the revenue raised from the sale of carrier bags, many chains are set to donate the funds to charity, following the trends they have already set in the rest of the UK.

Tesco has donated to environmental charities; Keep Wales Tidy, Keep Scotland Beautiful and the RSPCA have all received money from the ‘carrier bag tax’. In England, Tesco plans to allow customers to vote on the charities that will receive the revenue.

M&S has also made considerable donations to environmental charities, with the Marine Conservation Society and the WWF each receiving £88,446. The supermarket chain has also made donations to local charities.

The Co-op and Asda have chosen to donate to non-environmental charities, while Morrisons, Waitrose and Sainsbury’s are inviting charities to approach them if they wish to be considered for grants from the levy.

I don’t know about you, but I was already sold on the fact that this scheme would help keep our environment tidy. I was therefore over the moon when I found out that it could work to the benefit of charities up and down the country. Really, what’s not to love?

Good news for shoppers?

The scheme has been met with mixed reactions by shoppers. On the 5th October, when the new charge came in, supermarkets were expecting chaos at the checkouts, but reports instead told of less dramatic scenes, interspersed only by the odd grumble from customers.

From reading some of the reactions online, I learned that some felt the 25p the charge might add to their weekly shop was ‘daylight robbery’. The majority, though, seemed to feel that the levy was minuscule in comparison with the price of their shopping, and therefore didn’t mind.

The point is, however, we don’t HAVE to pay extra for plastic bags. This scheme isn’t about us trying to get home while juggling a chicken, a bottle of prosecco and a trifle in our arms. It’s about getting us to change our habits.

Changing habits

I took part in a poll on a national newspaper’s website, where the majority of respondents said they were prepared to change their habits to avoid the charge, with nearly a quarter, like me, saying they already used re-useable bags. Only 14% said they would continue to buy plastic bags.

I made my own decision to stop using plastic bags several years back. Yes, it was a bit tedious at first. I kept leaving my reusable bags in the car by accident, or even worse, leaving them at home. But after a while, it became second nature to add them to my mental list when leaving the house: ‘Purse, keys, shopping list, bags.’

Also, some retailers have been charging for their plastic bags for a while. Aldi and Lidl have always charged customers for carrier bags, and M&S have charged 5p for any bag that is designed to carry anything more than a sausage roll and a packet of Percy Pigs (yes, I do get the irony of that selection of items).

And if you’re buying raw meat or fish, unwrapped rhizomes (roots, stems and shoots, such as ginger), or live aquatic creatures in water, you’ll get a plastic bag anyway – these are exempt from the levy.

Could we do better?

So, as you can probably tell, I was pretty pleased with this news. However, where we are now shouldn’t be the end of the journey – we still have further to go.

Currently, the plastic bag charge only applies to bags that are 70 microns or less in thickness – ‘single use’ carrier bags. As a result, companies that hand their goods out in sturdier bags, such as high street clothes stores, will not be made to impose the levy.

Similarly, the charge will only apply to companies that employ over 250 staff members. This means that independent retailers or smaller companies are exempt and plastic bags will still be given to shoppers freely. This is not the case in Wales, where all retailers who give out single use carrier bags are expected to charge for them.

We also need to consider which replacements we use for plastic bags. San Francisco reported an increase in landfill waste from paper bags that had been used instead. There have also been some concerns that cotton bags need to be used 131 times in order to be better than plastic bags in terms of limiting global warming, due to the production processes involved.

However, I look forward to the time that the levy applies to retailers of all sizes and all kinds of plastic bags. And let’s keep using those re-useable bags – the hint’s in the name!

Guest post provided by Sarah KellewaySarah Kelleway

Sarah is a freelance copywriter and owner of Juniper Copy. She specialises in producing web copy for a range of businesses, but enjoys any form of writing project.  When she’s not typing away, Sarah can be found either hunting for treasure in charity shops, experimenting with new recipes in her kitchen, or being smothered by her two over-sized and over-friendly cats.

You can find out more about Sarah and Juniper Copy at www.junipercopy.com.

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