Plastic bag ban – a public tax in the name of ecology?

This has just come in in England and Wales, and some are welcoming this new law. Marks and Spencer’s already charge for disposable plastic shopping bags at their tills, as do Scotland, and some local towns have campaigned for it. Now it is nationally legislated – bag needers will be charged!

The official reason is an environmental one: that plastic is harmful to wildlife and its dumping in landfill produces not only ugly landscapes but the wrenching photos – to the viewer and the sufferer – of creatures fatally and painfully entwined with the toxic chemicals of our careless wastage.

We should be encouraged to recycle, and bring our own bags to the shops, say proponents of the ban. A small (5p) charge for each plastic bag will make customers think before asking for them, and the 5ps can go towards a good cause.

Let us stop there.

So customers know what size their shopping will be, and always have sufficient bags on them? Don’t shops want us to buy a little more than we planned?

Many of us have brought our own bag for ages, or walked out with our goods under our arms, unbagged. There used to be a fear that no bag will look like we’re stealing and earn us a grilling with the shops security guard.

I’ve seen a mother try to instil a sense of responsibility in her kids by asking for a bag each for them at the till, so that they can carry their own purchases. I could see the counter staff itching to say, how exactly is this responsibility, and wouldn’t saving on these thick, oil induced bags by putting the small items into one and YOU as adult carry it be a better responsibility lesson?

It means that staff packing for customers will slip, for if we bring our own bag, will anyone feel this service is needed? When I worked in retail, long before anti plastic bags was much of a movement, I asked, do you need a bag. And whoever didn’t still got a packing offer – for why should being organised and waste conscious deprive you of a basic shopping service? It’s flustering to have to gather up your own goods as they fly at you and there’s pressure to pay and leave before the next person starts being served. For the server, it’s no harder to run them through the til and place them down on the counter for the customer to pick up than into a bag, which is good service and means no stress for anyone.

I’m also concerned about this 5p to ‘good causes’. Not every group with the legal status of a charity is my idea of worthy. How will they assist those disabled children or people with mental health issues? Where exactly is my money being spent – is it going on admin and bosses’ salaries, or to the cause itself? I query those that claim to work to stamp out diseases (that’d take another post to explain) and those that support the military. How are offenders being ‘resocialised’? Is putting water supply in that third world village actually joining the pipeline to commodifying free resources and a welcome to capitalism and western control?

So far, the causes are not named and I do not trust these funds to be distributed to things I support in the best way. I’d rather just give to the charities I do support.

And once again, this is a tax on the people, not the shops, some of whom are huge chains, undercutting small shops and not paying their suppliers or staff on the ground properly.

Isn’t the real issue – if this is truly about ecological concerns about plastic – the need to find a biodegradable, non harmful substance to make bags with?

I have seen plastic carrier bags turn into little bits within a few months, so it’s not true that they last for decades.

But I’ve also seen councils stipulate corn starch liners for food waste collection bins – so there is something available – so why not use those instead as carrier bags?

And what of what we do put in our rubbish bins? Most councils will only collect if it’s in a plastic bag. I think many of us – when we’re not reusing our carrier bags anyway – use them for holding our waste. Thus it cuts down on what we purchase to put refuse in.

Like paying to offset carbon footprints, it feels that all we’re doing is not really cutting down on plastic or changing the issues that create harm for the environment, but in putting a price on it, using our greatest valued item – money – to dissuade but also appease any conscience we may have.

At 5p, it’s too little to put off seriously, so it’s an innocuous seeming new tax – think how many 5ps could be rung through the tills of supermarkets from now on – that’s a lot of cash for someone – but who? It recalls the plot in Superman III where Gus Gorman works out that taking a half cent off everyone’s wages makes him a rich man.

It feels both naively green and greedy, another nanny state act, under the auspices of that fashionably hot potato, the environment, but without really doing anything to change the bottom issues; and which meanwhile takes from the people and gives to the unknown whilst not seriously affecting the plastic industry’s supplies – or are we the public paying their compensation?!

And shop staff have been dreading this day and the arguments they’ll be getting into….

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