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article imageOp-Ed: Plastic bag use rises in Britain for eighth year running Special

By Tim Sandle     Aug 2, 2015 in Environment
London Colney - The British population’s love affair with plastic bags shows no sign of abating. Unlike most countries around the world, the U.K. continues to use more and more plastic shopping bags.
In a typical British supermarket, as people go about their daily shop, trolleys are stacked up with plastic polyethylene bags. A few hardy souls bring their own, more sturdy bags and use these each visit. However, the vast majority continue to use and discard flimsy poly plastic bags.
The trend is also rising. This is despite some stores, such as Marks & Spencer’s, charging shoppers per bag. The major supermarkets, like Tesco and Sainsbury’s, give bags away for free. Instead of charging shoppers, Sainsbury’s used to give reward points every time a shopper brought their own bag. This positive incentive was ended in 2015, signalling that plastic bags for free is not such as bad thing after all.
Even if people do not wish to splash out on a bag that can be used time and time again (a so-called “bag for life”), plastic shopping bags, in most cases, could be re-used. Research from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (part of the U.K. government) has found that the typical household already has 40 plastic bags stashed away at home.
More alarming is the rise in plastic bag use. New figures issued show hoppers collected some 8.5 billion single-use carrier bags from major supermarkets during 2014. This figure was up two hundred million from 2013.
Reacting to the news, the government minister responsible, Rory Stewart, said in a statement: “We’re all guilty of taking a carrier bag from a supermarket, storing it somewhere safe at home with the intention of using it again, then forgetting to take it with us next time we go to the shops. But the more bags we take, the more plastic makes its way into our environment, blighting our high streets, spoiling our enjoyment of the countryside, and damaging our wildlife and marine environments.”
This is all well and good, but by dominating the recent coalition and following the recent election, the Conservative Party has had over five years to take some action. This is illustrative again of the Tories weak green credentials. The government are set to put in place a small charge for bags from October, unless the policy is dropped. This is a carry over policy from the Liberal Democrats, when they shared power as junior members of the 2010-2015 coalition government.
Whether are charging is sufficient as a negative reinforcing economic behavior remains to be seen.To test out the habits of British shoppers, I went to two local supermarkets in July. One was Sainsbury's at London Colney. Here, I noted over a 30-minute period by four self check-out tills, 20 shoppers use this area. Of these, only two people used their own bags. Even here, one was a mix of two super-strong recyclable bags mixed up with a couple of store provided plastic bags. Not good for the Friday night shop.
Perhaps the Sainsbury's example was indicative of people buying a small number of groceries. Self check-out tends to be used by people with baskets only, and, on Friday, this service is more commonly used by people rushing home, grabbing wine and cheese or some other quick to prepare pickings.
On a busy Saturday, I visited the Tesco "hypermarket" (big store) at Hatfield. Surveying a couple of pay points designed for trolleys I watched ten families go through. In no instances did any one bring a bag with them, although one couple did purchase some from a shop assistant.
My review was not in any way scientific. Hatfield and London Colney may not be representative of the U.K. as a whole, and the times and days that I selected might be favored by a narrow group of shoppers(although Saturday is a popular time for the bug family shop.) It may also be the shoppers at other big stores, say Morrison's or Asda, or smaller stores like Lidl or Aldi, are more aware of the plastic bag issue. But I suspect not.
A plastic bag in Toronto
A plastic bag in Toronto
Plastic bags pose an environmental risk and they take decades to decompose (types that carry bnot biodegradable claim can remain intact, predictions suggest, for 500 years.) They also add considerably to landfill bulk. In some cases the plastic decomposes and releases toxins. Discarded bags also pose a risk to animals, in terms of suffocation.
So why aren't shoppers aware? And what is the role of government and stores in all of this? In terms of shoppers, there has been plenty of publicity about the environmental impact of single-use bags. So, the behavior must be fairly entrenched.
What should stores do? A move to paper bags and compostable bags doe not seem to be happening. So, we seem to be left with plastic bags. A store cannot simply withdraw plastic bags from use, otherwise shopping rates would fall and it would face the risk of being undercut by a rival. So charging is an option, using a negative activity to alter shopper behavior. If this does not happen, then some would argue that government, responsible for the stewardship of the common environment, should put actions in place so that bag use needs to be paid for. This is the current government policy, much debated and discussed since 2010, and set to come in within the next few months. Those against this point out that it becomes a tax on the poor and that more well-to-do shoppers will simply shrug off the proposed 5 pence per bag charge.
Is there another way? Popular economics has a lot to say about "nudging." This runs that government enforcement is not the answer, but instead positive reinforcement and indirect suggestions can influence the behaviors of groups and individuals. If this the case, then the decision by Sainsbury's et al to drop reward and other incentive points for re-using bags is the wrong one.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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