Thursday, 28 November 2019

Plastic bag tax - as expected, it didn't work as planned.

As I said eleven years ago, when the idea was first mooted in Wales:

4. [If the tax is] anything more than [0.1p per bag] we'd have a situation like in Ireland where people buy more, thicker bin-liners, nappy bags etc, so the overall environmental benefits are questionable to say the least.

I was initially taken in by articles like this (BBC, 2015) reporting "plastic bag use down 80%". Fair enough, I thought, I was wrong. With the benefit of hindsight and reading between the lines, Tesco were being a bit sneaky and didn't include 'bags for life' in their total.

So I was correct in principle, although my guesses on what substitutes people would buy were off the mark. From the BBC, today:

Sales of "bags for life" rose to 1.5bn last year as the amount of plastic used by supermarkets increased to 900,000 tonnes, Greenpeace research has found.

Campaigners are calling for higher charges for the bags or a complete ban as the research showed households bought an average of 54 a year... Bags for life must be used four times to be better for the environment.

On a human level, I really don't get it. I was caught out twice after the tax came in and paid the 5p for a disposable bag. Damn. Since then, I usually remember to take proper cloth bags with me to the supermarket. If I do a big shop, I'm with the* car anyway, so worst case I unload the stuff from the trolley straight into the boot, no biggie. If I pop in to the corner shop on the way home, I don't buy more than I can carry with two hands. (And what the hell does an average household do with their piles of bags for life?)

On the other hand, on a human level, I can understand it. If you're at the checkout with £50 of shopping for the family for the next few days, who cares about another 20p or 30p for the bags/convenience? Obviously, not very many.

So, the question is, should the whole thing be abandoned as a bad job, or should the tax be hiked ever higher? We can rule out a "complete ban", that's cloud cuckoo.

* Strictly speaking "with a car" as I have more than one, but that sounds odd.
This bit winds me up as well:

Waitrose was ranked top for cutting its packaging and trying out refill stations for products such as coffee, rice, pasta, wine and detergent.

Morrisons came second and was praised for setting a quantified target to increase reusable and refillable packaging, as well as making its loose and refillable products 10% cheaper than packaged alternatives.

Sure, they sell stuff 'loose'. Does that reduce the amount of plastic used? Does it heck. You are expected to put your 'loose' items into a flimsy plastic bag!

Being me, I don't bother with the flimsy plastic bag, I just hand the check out assistant three loose carrots (or whatever it is I only need a few of), they weigh up and charge me for the carrots. If you put them in a flimsy plastic bag, they weigh the plastic bag with contents and charge you for the bag as well.

And there is a trade-off between food waste and packaging waste. To a large extent, the packaging is there to reduce food waste. Think egg boxes. Just because the packaging is thrown away does not mean that it hasn't served a useful purpose.


Bayard said...

"Strictly speaking "with a car" as I have more than one, but that sounds odd."

Not to me it doesn't. Alternatively, you could say, "I'm driving".

Anomalous Cowshed said...

An average of 54 a year?

This may be a definition of "bag for life" of which I was previously unaware.

Barman said...

I wonder how much shoplifting has increased (or how much the cost of security has increased) since people started walking into shops with their own bags...?

Mark Wadsworth said...

B, "if I'm driving" doesn't quite encapsulate the situation. I can't be driving and in the supermarket at the same time.

AC, exactly. They should market them honestly as "Bag for a week".

BM, I don't it makes much difference. You were always allowed to bring your own carriers. And those self-checkout thingies allow massive stealing. Supermarkets don't care. Value of goods stolen less than cost of checkout staff.

Dinero said...

A "Bag For Life" is replaced by the supermarket free of charge when it is returned by the customer to the supermarket in a worn out condition.

Sobers said...

I think the substitution effect is the biggest reason for the single use bag ban being a pile of pants. When you got a thin plastic bag for free to carry your shopping home, most people stuffed them in a kitchen drawer and reused them for other things, bin liners mostly, but maybe other carrying jobs. Now even if you buy a 'bag for life' and use it religiously, you still need bin liners, so you have to buy bags made for that purpose which will undoubtedly be made of heavier grade plastic than single use carrier bags. But they get chucked in the waste just the same. And human nature being what it is, people forget to take a bag with them to the shops, so end up buying more of the heavier bag for life types as well.

Its a typical tale of government types not having a clue how real life works, and also totally ignoring second and third order effects because they don't like the implication for their pet policy.

Kevin the Chimp said...

The lifespan of my bags for life is typically 6 hours:
- pop in shop on way home from work
- buy drinks & snacks for the evening, breakfast stuff for the morning
- take them home in a 40p bag for life
- drinks in fridge, snacks & breakfast in cupboard
- bag for life immediately used as an impromptu bin bag for the evening
- before bed, the bag full of dinner leftovers etc is tied and put in the wheelie bin

...repeat most every night.

mombers said...

I've bought about 3 bags for life since the ban, but then again I've mostly used my own bags for almost 20 years. When you used to get Nectar/ Tesco points for bring your own bag, I racked them up and must have enjoyed dozens of free pounds over the years

mombers said...

An excellent example of Cockney rhyming slang's evolution is that 'trouble and strife' has been superseded by 'bag for life'

Lola said...


Lola said...


Also yoghurt pots. I use those for all sorts of useful garagie things - including mixing small quantities of resin.
Spread tubs. temporary of even permanent fastening or small component stores.
The list goes on.

Bayard said...

"so you have to buy bags made for that purpose which will undoubtedly be made of heavier grade plastic than single use carrier bags."

Initially, I thought that, but I find that if I keep any plastic bag that is big enough to act as a bin liner, then I never run out of bin liners without having to buy them. If you shop a lot on the internet, a high proportion of things turn up either in plastic bags either with or without a box round them. The irritating thing about the old single use bags was they were just too small to make a good bin liner, unless you got them from Lidl and paid 3p for them.

L. don't you find the resin dissolves the yoghurt pot?

Bayard said...

M, Doesn't "I'm driving" mean you are using a car for transport? In the pub you could be asked "Are you driving?" meaning "Do you have to watch what you drink?" despite the quite obvious fact that you are sitting in a pub and not driving at all.

Lola said...

B. It's varies with yoghurt brand - surprisingly.

Mark Wadsworth said...

D, it appears it doesn't happen very much.

S, exactly.

KTC, why don't you use the 5p ones?

M, and just as offensive :-)

L, how did people buy yoghurt before plastic pots? In glass bottles?

B, I toyed with "if I'm driving", I suppose that would have been as good.

Lola said...

MW. Yes. When I lived in Switzerland it came in glass bottles. That was 1962 /1963.

Bayard said...

L, how did you get it out? When I was a kid in the 60s, yoghurt still came in a plastic tub.