Thursday 6 October 2016

Bagged Out: How The Plastic Bag Charge Is Helping Everyone

Our oceans and countrysides are littered with the detritus of our takeaway age. Discarded drinks cans, old gum, cigarette stubs and of course, plastic. Recent research has shown that the man-created island of waste floating in the Pacific is even larger than we originally thought. It seems like we're the victims of our own thoughtlessness, and there's precious little we can do to stem the tide.

Except we can, and we are, and it's taken one simple step to start rolling things in the right direction. Namely, the 5p charge on plastic bags to consumers that launched in the UK earlier this year. Figures have recently been revealed on the first six months of the charge being put in place. The results are remarkable.

Issues of single-use plastic bags from the major supermarket chains dropped by 85% from March to September this year. That's over six billion bags less. Marine charities like Surfers Against Sewage and the Marine Conservation Society are reporting beaches that are substantially, if not entirely free from plastic waste. Andy Cummings, campaign director of SAS, told The Guardian:

“It’s a fantastic success. The vast majority have adapted their behaviour without a check in their stride. There will be a phenomenal net benefit for the environment from 6bn fewer bags.”

It's astonishing that one tiny charge has brought about such a rapid sea change (sorry) in our behaviour, and there are added benefits too. That 5p levy on bags has earned charities nearly £30million in donations from supermarkets over the past six months–a vital fresh source of income as people are giving less directly to good causes. There's also been a boom in the market for sturdy multi-use bags. Made out of materials like hemp and printed with ethically-produced dyes, these are eminently sustainable items that will last for dozens of shopping trips.

But why stop there? If such a simple step can have such a massive change, then it makes sense to carry on and levy micro-charges on other major causes of man-made waste, like one-use coffee cups. There's definite interest in a change. Starbucks already offer a discount if you bring in your own cup, and helpfully sell reusable mugs in store.

I'm old enough to remember when glass bottles had a deposit on them and could be returned to stores to get that money back. This is an idea that bears resurrecting–in fact, it's still a thing in dozens of European countries. The whole process could even be modernised with reverse vending machines that will take your glass and aluminium and pay you back for them.

The raging success of the plastic bag charge should be a kick-start for a modern, pragmatic approach to recycling that uses a simple psychological trick to get us to do the right thing. Sadly, the government environmental body DEFRA at the moment is not in such a keen mood, preferring to see if the figures are a start-up bump or will translate into further success. But for many of us who use the UKs beaches and rural areas regularly, the benefits are already becoming clearer. For once, we're seeing a win-win for the environment that also benefits people in need. That's a very unexpected item in the bagging area, right?

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