Saturday, 14 September 2013

A Bag for Life?

As you seize your toothpaste, bag of sugar, toilet rolls, packet of tea bags and pint of milk from the conveyor belt, the assistant with the DYMO badge and Crimplene costume asks whether you want a bag.  "No", you say, biting your tongue. You'd prefer to embrace all said goods between your arms like a long lost lover and hope you don't drop any.  It's manageable - just - if you clutch the top of the bag of sugar by your teeth. 

There are some pretty awful things happening in the World.  In the UK, front page news appears to be that we are insistent on charging 5 pence for a carrier bag. I had rather hoped this thing had been wisely and quietly forgotten about.

At a checkout until now, oh how we've relished the excitement of the choice between a proper fit-for-purpose carrier bag; or a free one.  The free one being too small to hold anything more than a single yoghurt with ease.  So thin it's unsafe for any journey further than the escalator.  Helpfully, sympathetic assistants, with Valerie Singleton skill,  insert two or three inside each other. And, lo, they make, well, a thick carrier bag. Like the ones we used to have.

They do smile, these tolerant shop assistants, and suggest that all my five pence goes to charity. Reading the small print, actually it does not; it's usually just the profit which goes to charity.  So, the retailer has saved the cost of what he used to spend on bags. If there were a moral cause, they'd donate all such monies to a swan sanctuary or something.

Like many, I re-use my carrier bags. They are deposited temporarily  in the internationally-agreed hoarding place under the sink, before being turned into liners for my pedal bin.  If I didn't use one of those, I'd deploy an industrial-sized black bag, which are readily on sale, despite their criminality. I rather suspect the small Sainsbury bag would have been less destructive to the environment.

I was delighted when a segmented refuse-disposal system was introduced in my neck of the woods. We were asked to segregate all recyclable paper and put it in, well, a plastic carrier bag.  They helpfully supplied lots of these special orange plastic carrier bags for me. Carrier bags I would not otherwise have used.

The new law suggests that bags issued by large companies are worse for the environment than those from small companies; or if you sack a few staff you can live without the charges.  It means that companies no longer have to pay for their own bags.  The customer now does.  And if you manage to sort a bio-degradable bag, well, there's still a charge. 

If the company was giving the profit (not proceeds) to charity, it now no longer has to. It can merrily charge because 'it has to'. Government will 'report' on what companies do with the cash, presumably hoping that the press will pick on offenders and govern vicariously.

There was a report on this stuff. I guess there've been many. The Environment Agency-commissioned report "Life Cycle Assessment ofSupermarket Carrier Bags" set out to find out which of seven types of bags have the lowest environmental impact by assessing pollution caused by extraction of raw materials, production, transportation and disposal.  Important too to trace the whole life cycle to make fair comparisons; given that things need to be created in the first place.  It concluded: “The HDPE (plastic carrier) bag had the lowest environmental impacts of the single use options in nine of the 10 impact categories. The bag performed well because it was the lightest single use bag considered"

I'm not saying 'let's just use things for the sake of it'.  I'm saying why are we obsessed with the carrier bag?  If they really are so bad - and we really seek a powerful policy - let's enforce a £1 charge.  At just 5p, I question the motives.

If we are concerned about the environment, let's have councils not distributing weighty tomes of printed propaganda house-to-house, using the thickest paper.  Let's not bother with all those printed pointless Census forms. Let's not fly to fact-finding missions across Europe every ten minutes.  Let's not have traffic systems which mean you travel a mile to get ten yards.  Let's make public transport cheaper. Let's not package items in thick impenetrable packaging which takes a carving knife to enter. And - as pointed on in Radio 4's wonderful 'More or Less' programme, the eco-damage of your drive to the supermarket in the first place is many times worse than any carrier bag.

I smile as I am charged 5p at Boots for a carrier bag, when they demand I grab a bottle of Coke so my lunch might become a 'meal deal' and magically come down in price. So, they charge me less for taking home some more plastic. Clearly a miraculously different plastic the civil servants care less about. It can be re-cycled, I gather, but most ends up in landfill.

As for 'bag for life'. Tosh. When I am 93, I'm going to take one back to the shop with a hole in it.  There'll be a whole host of similar court cases. It'll be like mis-sold PPI  all over again.

Bags for life are riddled with germs. I'll sue.

This has been a simple, populist cause which is taking far more of our time and energies than it warrants.  It has attracted public attention, regardless of the facts.  

Yes, there is a case for us to watch all our consumption and waste in how we live our lives, but that is a far larger issue with more generalist conclusions and measures warranted. A 5p carrier bag charge is a ridiculous start, making little real difference to the key issue and earning the supermarkets more money. The law is ill-framed; and will seem as pointless, in time, as all the tax benefits offered as recently as 2001 to encourage diesel cars as they were supposedly 'better for the environment'.  

Let's govern on science and facts and make change which  genuinely helps our planet. Let's give our civil servants something more productive to work on that this drivel, causing yet another futile administrative burden for industry.

The matter of carrier bags should be left to retailers and public conscience; and we should educate more generally about all the things which genuinely make a long term difference to our environment. The Government's legislative timetable should be reserved for matters of education, the economy, health, life & death.

Written Sept 2013. Updated Oct 2015

Related, but unrelated. Steve Allen in fighting form about bags on LBC.
This is not my main blog. That is all about radio - at

1 comment:

  1. Went into M&S today in Bath and small, free lunch bags are gone. The thin, green 5p carriers have been replaced by a new black and white check design bag made from thicker plastic. No doubt old bags have gone to landfill. Madness!