On Monday, it will become law for all large retailers to charge 5p for plastic bags, and give the proceeds to charity. This act has been greeted with heady acclaim. “Hold on to the dream!”, celebrates green columnist Lucy Siegle, imagining a transformation of the world economy and the saving of marine wildlife. Defra talks of £60m in cleanup savings, and millions of pounds donated to good causes.
If plastic bags presented such a problem, then the obvious answer would be to make them out of something else. Yet biodegradable bags will also be subject to these charges, which makes one wonder whether this is really about the environment or use of resources at all.
It has long been notable that critics of the plastic bag tend to be those with the most money and time on their hands. Hence the rise of bespoke bags that make a principled declaration, or designer bags made out of jute or recycled tyres. The plastic bag is the villain of eco-narcissists, mainly concerned about the message one is giving out about one’s consumption.
In fact, the mass-issue plastic bag is a pretty effective piece of design, meeting a specific need efficiently. They are remarkably strong for their density and, far from being “single use”, will be used over and over: to carry sandwiches, as a bicycle seat cover, to contain picnic rubbish.
The 5p levy won’t change anything dramatically. It will cause some inconvenience for a lot of people, particularly at self-checkout tills, and some extra cost – for the charge, and also for clear plastic bags for the kids’ sandwiches and so on. “Single-use” bags will fall by about 70 per cent, and sales of other bags will rise. In the end, people will get their groceries home somehow – perhaps just by shoving them loose in the back of the car, as happens in France, where there are no mass plastic bags at all.
The main impact of this change is an extension of the bureaucratic edifice around which businesses have to work. Witness the ridiculously complicated rules on how the 5p charge must be implemented. Defra’s guide is 1,600 words, covering the size of the bags, their thickness – and a series of exemptions, such as carrying uncooked fish and meat, prescription medicine or unwrapped plant products. Rules are similarly arcane, but different, in Wales and Scotland. Free bags can only be used to carry an exempt item, meaning you have to use a single wasteful bag for a packet of aspirin.
Worst of all are the requirements on business to report the intricacies of their plastic bag distribution to Defra every year, and to submit to the inspections of local authority officials. These officials will have power to issue “variable penalties” of up to £5,000 for the new offences of not charging 5p for bags, or for not keeping or presenting records about bag distribution.
As for donations to charity – this should be a matter for the public to decide. Instead, people’s money will be allocated on their behalf by supermarket management, no doubt with an eye towards the expectations of government (the Welsh government issued guidance on what counted as a good cause).
Ultimately, this has nothing to do with the planet or the public – it’s a measure of the mandarins, pure and simple.