I have been meaning to write about the 5p bag fee since it was introduced in England in October, bringing it in line with Wales and Scotland. I even started a blog entry back then, but with one thing or another I just didn’t get around to finishing it. However, I spotted a follow-up article about it in the Metro during my commute last week, and it has spurred me to tackle the topic.
First, it is true that we have an over-dependence on plastic carrier bags. Prior to the start of the bag fee, the UK used 8.5 billion bags each year … which is approximately 140 for every person in the country. That’s a lot of plastic. Not to mention a lot of energy that goes into their manufacture. While much of this is disposed of properly, reused, or recycled, a rather significant amount also ends up decorating trees, tossed out of cars (usually full of even more litter), or breaking down to form micro plastic that pollutes our waterways and oceans. Plastic bags are also a big killer of wildlife, with many marine animals mistaking bags for their usual meals.
So the idea of encouraging people to reduce the number of bags they use and to utilise reusable bags is a sound one. Yet I feel there are many problems with the way this has been instituted. For example, there are a number of exceptions to the law, which makes it feel like a token effort, rather than a serious attempt to kerb litter.
Perhaps most importantly, the overall way in which it has been handled is poor: the importance of positive PR cannot be overlooked. Calling it a “bag tax”, as I’ve seen many do, is immediately a step in the wrong direction – despite being a necessary part of living in a society, “tax” is viewed by many as a bad word. I also feel that the government has done a poor job of ensuring that shops are on board with the idea and, in turn, shops have failed to ensure public buy-in.
Like most things in life, people have to be sold on why this change is necessary. Blanket shops with positive advertisements in the months leading up to it. Put signs in car parks to remind people to bring their reusable bag with them. I feel like I’m signed up for every shop loyalty card known to man (or least the main ones: Nectar, Tesco Clubcard, Boots), and I admit I may have missed the memo, but I can’t recall seeing any vouchers to put towards a Bag for Life or a stylish new reusable bag. The legislation was apparently in the works for two years; where was the encouragement? The cheerleading? The positive spin that is vital to ensure that it gets taken up and becomes part of everyday habits?
I’ve written previously about the specific problems with the signs that I have seen: so far all of them are apathetic at best and, at worst, show a negative attitude from the store (“must charge”; “can’t give you”). All of this influences how people view the transition to a new system.
And what about the actual management of it? Tesco admitted to putting security tags on bags … there seriously wasn’t any prior thought given to how this was going to work? A week into the new charge and newspapers were full of stories about people taking trolleys and baskets home rather than pay the bag fee. They were then bragging about this theft on Facebook, which brings me to the actual reason for litter. After all, it is not a particular type of packaging or item that causes litter, but rather it’s the attitude of the people doing the littering. Until that is changed, we are going to continue to find crisp packets, takeaway containers, bottles and cans, sweet wrappers, and yes, plastic bags, in our cities and communities, on our coasts, and in our countryside. Perhaps now with one or two more stray trolleys and baskets added to the mix.
The follow-up article last week that kicked off this whole tirade was about how shoplifting had increased as a result of the bag fee. The next day, a dozen people had written in to the Metro about it. Some pointed to self-service checkouts as a bigger culprit. A few messages were along the lines of “What were shopkeepers thinking if they didn’t see this coming?” My personal favourite is a two-for-one: “The carrier bag charge is a money spinner for big stores and a distraction from the authorities’ waste disposal responsibilities.” This shows how poorly the scheme was explained to people (the money is not supposed to go to stores but to local causes), and it underscores the mindset that has to be tackled with litter in general: properly disposing of waste (i.e. litter) shouldn’t be the responsibility of local authorities, but rather the people who are actually using the products in the first place!
So where does this leave us? My personal feeling is that shops are being deliberately obtuse, with the idea that they can then plead that it isn’t working and have the legislation reversed. This was even mentioned by one of the Metro comments: “5p for a carrier bag was bound to provoke a negative response … I think it has to be reconsidered.” I hope I’m being cynical and that these are just teething problems. Perhaps in a few years everyone will be used to the charge, and this will just be viewed as a blip on the path to a cleaner UK. But if there is no follow up to tackling the attitude of a not-insignificant number of people, I don’t see how this will be the case.