‘Bin the bag’: the bizarre cause célèbre

Why has ridding society of ‘evil’ plastic bags become the issue for radicals, retailers and officials from San Francisco to Shanghai?

‘I suppose I was like everybody else. It was my job to be ethically minded but I wasn’t really. I bought things and didn’t think about the bills, I drove a lot, I was doing all the things that everybody does on a normal day and doesn’t think about.’ (1)

This was before Rebecca Hosking had her Damascene conversion (in Hawaii, actually), when she finally woke up to the impact that she and everyone else is having on the planet, especially through our wasteful use of plastic bags. Following her Hawaii eye-opening, Hosking committed herself to ‘doing something’ about our abuse of the planet: she launched a ban-the-bags campaign. Now everybody, from politicians to local officials to big retailers, wants a piece of the anti-bag action. Why is everyone getting carried away by the issue of plastic bags?

Hosking was filming a wildlife documentary in Hawaii in 2006, on how plastic pollution is killing whales, sea birds and turtles; apparently these animals are choking on our discarded plastic fragments. She then returned to her hometown of Modbury in Devon, south-west England, determined to convince the town’s traders and residents to replace plastic bags with other, biodegradable and re-useable varieties. She was successful, and Modbury is now hailed as Britain’s first carrier bag-free zone (2).

It is not uncommon for individuals to get a bee-in-their-bonnet about something and to organise a one-person campaign to try to effect change. Yet Hosking’s bag-bashing campaign has had much wider ramifications. Modbury has now become a role model for other campaign groups keen to make their towns bag-free. Copycat campaigns have been launched all over the place, from the eco-enclave of Hebden Bridge in West Yorkshire to London’s café-culture-trendy district, East Dulwich. Hosking herself is now the subject of numerous hagiographic interviews, like that conducted by Louise Carpenter in last Sunday’s Observer Food Monthly: ‘At 34, Hosking is an attractive woman, tall and broad with a ruddy face (as a result of the punishing Devon air and the sun-scorched climate abroad), fair, wavy hair and a strong Devon accent… Despite what Hosking says, she is special, both for her bulldozing drive and her immense integrity.’

Hosking may well be a wonderful human being (though her comment about people who have second homes in Devon – ‘Oh, you’re one of the ones I need to put a pipe bomb through your letterbox, quite frankly’ – does not suggest an entirely generous spirit). But she doesn’t seem to think very much of the rest of us. In an interview last year, she expressed a cynical and fashionable disdain for modern British society: ‘We are 60million people eating up vast amounts of valuable natural resources… this can only lead to us drowning in our own waste and cooking in our own gases. Plastic bags clogging our waterways and climate change are two symptoms of the same problem – unsustainability.’ (3)

Whatever Hosking’s personal merits and flaws, there is clearly something in the issue of bags that gets people agitated. Politicians have picked up on this mood, too, and are falling over themselves to suggest bans or compulsory charging for plastic bags. Indeed, Hosking was by no means a pioneer. First off the mark was Ireland, which introduced a ‘plastax’ in 2002. Shoppers must now pay for each bag they receive. Currently the price of a plastic bag in Ireland is 22 Euro cents (about 15 pence or 30 US cents); the introduction of this charge initially cut the number of bags handed out by 90 per cent, though bag usage has crept up again since. According to the Irish government, the proportion of litter made up of plastic bags fell from five per cent to 0.22 per cent after the tax was introduced. Other administrations – in France and San Francisco – have banned plastic bags altogether; London may soon follow suit. This month, China announced a ban on free plastic bags (4).

Yet contrary to the assertions of campaigners, plastic bags are a mere footnote in Britain’s use of resources and production of waste. They do not contribute very much to overall waste levels. The bags handed out for free by supermarkets weigh about eight grams. We use absolutely loads of them each year: about 10billion in the UK, which amounts to 80,000 tonnes of waste. It sounds like a lot, but in fact it represents only 0.27 per cent of all municipal waste produced annually in the UK. Moreover, the bags are produced using a part of crude oil – naphtha – that generally can’t be used for anything else. If naphtha wasn’t used to produce bags, it would mostly be burned off.

If anything, the plastic bag is a victim of its own success. These wafer-thin carriers are durable, ridiculously cheap to mass produce and have all sorts of wonderful ancillary uses, from bin liners to bicycle seat covers. This capacity for imaginative re-use – and the irrationality of obsessing about such trivial consumption – was neatly illustrated by Louise Carpenter in her Observer Food Monthly interview with Hosking. Her Hosking-inspired aversion to plastic bags left her, almost literally, in the shit: ‘In the middle of our conversation, I feel a rumble in my daughter’s nappy that quickly turns into an explosion. When I get to the loo to change her, I realise with dismay that I only have a plastic Sainsbury’s bag in which to contain the dirty nappy. To my shame, it is my usual method of dealing with such a business. Not only is this clearly unacceptable in Modbury but I realise that Hosking has already converted me. “I’ll take that from you!” says the Modbury café lady when I emerge holding the un-bagged nappy.’ (5) Welcome to Brave New Modbury, where even sticking a stinking nappy in a plastic bag, and tying a very tight knot, is frowned upon.

The cost-benefit ratio of the modern plastic bag is extremely high – they cost little financially or environmentally, and they are extremely useful. That doesn’t mean plastic bags are perfect, of course. If a small charge for bags reduces bag litter, it might not be a bad idea. If alternative, cost-effective materials can be found to make carrier bags, materials which do not linger in the environment, then that’s all to the good. But the crusading tone of today’s anti-plastic bag hysteria suggests there is something more profound going on here than the problem of litter or plastic waste on the sea shore; this has become a deeply moralistic campaign, with some worrying undertones.

UK prime minister Gordon Brown put his finger on it last November when he suggested that plastic bags are ‘one of the most visible symbols of environmental waste’. It is the very visibility of plastic bags, the fact that they are used to carry all that nice food and various other consumer products, that makes certain people uncomfortable. At root, the mostly middle-class activists who get excited by the detritus of everyday life, like plastic bags, are really guilt-ridden about consumption in general – which is ironic, given that the middle classes consume more than the majority of the population. While most expenditure continues to be on the necessities of life – housing, food, heating and transport – the relatively small proportion of income devoted to the non-essentials has in recent years taken on an overwhelming importance for middle-class campaigners and commentators.

The anti-bag campaign is a product of society’s current impasse. In the absence of any new political vision for transforming society, greens argue that we have reached our ‘natural limits’ and must stop, rein things in, live more humbly. Therefore, overconsumption is looked upon as downright foolhardy, even sinful; we must reduce, reuse, recycle, they say. In this narrow-minded climate, the plastic bag, and more importantly he who carries it, has become a symbol of reckless greed and waste. What’s more, many people see society as lacking any moral purpose today; thus they seek out activities and campaigns that can provide them with a sense of purpose and moral bluster. Fretting about something as historically and environmentally insignificant as the plastic bag might seem mad to many of us, but it allows Moralistic of Modbury to feel as if they are doing something Important.

Above all, this new ‘ethical’ outlook represents a psychological, sometimes even physical, retreat from modern life. Hosking’s description of her return to Modbury captured many people’s view of modern life these days: ‘I’d been running away from Modbury for about 15 years, going as far away as I could… But right now I think it’s probably quite important to localise yourself, batten down the hatches and have a life where you can sustain yourself a bit.’ (6) ‘Sustain yourself a bit’ - that could be the motto of environmentalism and of contemporary society in general. What about the millions of people who expect more from life than basic sustenance and degraded debates about non-degradable bags?

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.

Previously on spiked

Angus Kennedy looked at Gordon Brown’s ‘big idea’ to ban plastic bags. Rob Lyons interrogated our attitudes to packaging, rubbish and plastic bags. James Heartfield described the religious tone of middle-class consumption angst. Or read more at spiked issue Environment.

(1) The bag lady: Rebecca Hosking, Observer Food Monthly, 27 January 2008

(2) Modbury: Great Britain’s first plastic bag free town

(3) ‘She has changed the national perspective about plastic bags in a few months. She should be prime minister’, Guardian, 23 November 2007

(4) China bans free plastic bags, CNN, 9 January 2008

(5) The bag lady: Rebecca Hosking, Observer Food Monthly, 27 January 2008

(6) The bag lady: Rebecca Hosking, Observer Food Monthly, 27 January 2008

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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