Plastic bag charges: saving the world, 5p at a time

Making shoppers pay for carrier bags is just the latest petty punishment for doing Something Bad.

Naomi Firsht

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Topics Politics

On a recent shopping expedition I was asked a puzzling question. I was standing at the till at WH Smith with all my stationery needs piled high before me – a veritable mountain of folders, notepads, pens and more. The cashier rang through each purchase and then, peering over the top of my multi-coloured dividers, she said: ‘Do you need a bag?’

Hmmm… Do I need a bag? Well having just purchased half the shop, I was sort of counting on taking the stuff home with me, and not being in the habit of wearing a fisherman’s jacket kitted out with 50 pockets, which even then might be a stretch for a lever-arch file, it might be nice to have some kind of carrying device with which to transport my wares home. To sum up, yes I need a bag. Obviously I need a bag!

Of course, the assistant was merely carrying out shop policy. As WH Smith charges for bags now, customers must be asked if they need one and then pay for the pleasure if they do. Because according to the government, we do not need a bag.

Last week, the Queen’s Speech formally announced the government’s intention to implement a 5p fee on plastic bags across England. (Wales already has such a charge and Scotland has announced one.) And why? Because plastic bags are bad news. And if you want bad things in this country you have to pay for them.

The plastic bag has been added to the bad list, part of a growing trend over the past few years which has seen anything deemed bad for us, or for the world at large, taxed more and more just to hammer it home to us lowly civilians that what we are doing is wrong.

It’s bad to use lots of fuel because of climate change, airlines must buy permits for carbon emissions (with the cost passed on to passengers, naturally). So should we wish to do something fun like fly to another country on holiday, we must pay a little extra for the privilege. We enjoy drinking and smoking, but only because we don’t know what’s good for us. Luckily the government has stepped in with higher taxes to help us save ourselves!

The danger du jour is plastic bags. Apparently, they aren’t recyclable and they are filling our landfills and killing dolphins, small woodland creatures and god knows what other kind of adorable little beings across the planet. Except they are recyclable. Almost all the big chain supermarkets use recyclable bags. Yet there is no consistency about this: the packaging on most supermarket items involves plastic of some variety and we’re not being asked to pay extra for that.

Why has the onus been placed on the humble carrier bag? Could it be that at less than a penny a pop to produce one, the big brand stores stand to make a nice pile of cash on the side? Excuse me for being cynical, but if the real issue here is the environment, why aren’t the government forcing the supermarkets to supply paper bags or biodegradable ones instead of plastic ones? Why is it the consumer who loses out? Most supermarket customers are loyal to one store, they spend hundreds of pounds there every month. Is it really too much to expect to get a little service for your business?

There are those who will rise to the challenge and head out each morning with a trendy cloth bag, smugly emblazoned with the words ‘Not a plastic bag’, tucked away on their person in case of a shopping emergency. The less organised, however, will be doomed to fork out the 5p charge each time they decide to pick up some supplies on the way home.

Either way, the plastic bags will still tumble off the conveyor belts and into the shops, but at least the government will know they’ve done their bit to save the world; and as the five-pence piece clinks into the till, we’ll all know we’ve done Something Bad.

Naomi Firsht is a journalist based in London.

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Topics Politics

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