England lags behind Wales and Ireland.
Have you noticed how much easier it is to get a plastic bag these days? About 6 years ago the government had a drive to try and reduce plastic bag usage – supermarkets stopped having them readily available and you had to ask for them. It made you feel a little guilty and you had to think about how many you wanted and if you asked for an extra one… As a result of this plastic bag usage fell by 40% in the next three years. Now though it is on the rise again, and, I don’t know if you are finding the same, but these days I am asked if I want any bags, or they are automatically put out for me. Even worse, when I have occasionally had food delivered (it was mainly tea, coffee and sugar for work) the plastic bag usage was horrendous. However, there is hope.
Wales has recently introduced a 5p levy on plastic carrier bag, Ireland introduced one in 2002 Following the introduction of the charge plastic bag usage in Ireland dropped by 95% and in six months use in Wales dropped by 22%. Compare this to an increase of 7.5% in England last year. But, just in case you think this is a money making scheme by the Irish government the levy, in addition to acting as a deterrent, is being recycled (unlike most plastic bags) into environmental schemes. And, it is not just these two countries that are trying to curb the use of plastic bags – Italy is the first European country to ban non-biodegradeable plastic bags, and certain plastic bags are banned completely in countries as diverse as China, South Africa, Rwand and the United Arab Emirates.
So, why are plastic bags such a problem. Firstly, the numbers used are huge, 12.2 billion were handed out in 2011 – that is roughly 11 per shopper per month, and that is just in the UK. They are used on average for just 12 minutes before being thrown away, with very few being recycled. Whilst lots are used as bin liners, it takes between 500 and 1000 years for them to degrade in landfill. Plastic bags are of course made from oil, as we know a scarce commodity that really should have better uses, but this also means that there are additional nasties in there that leach out when the bag decays. (I am not even going to get into the resources required to make and transport them – well, maybe I will another day.) Not all bags end up in landfill, you have all seen them out in the countryside, caught in trees and lying on the beaches. You have no doubt also heard the stories about the amount that are drifting around the oceans, killing the sea life either directly or through those aforementioned nasties (the current estimate is that there are 46 000 pieces of plastic litter floating in every square mile of ocean).
What are the alternatives then, because we all have to get our shopping home. Firstly, do you need a bag, or at least THAT many bags – really, you do? What about reusing the bags you got last time (I always keep one in my bag – it also stopped my bum getting wet when I sat on a damp bench – bonus)? What about a bag for life – these last for ages and yet only need to be used 4 times to make up for the additional resources used to make them. They are also bigger and you can therefore get more in them – less juggling. I prefer the Jute bags, they are easier to carry (I can sling mine over my shoulder), should last a long time and are relatively inexpensive – reusable bags that are a modern take on your grandmother’s shopping basket. Some would prefer paper bags as in the US, but the resources that these use are a lot higher and there is the risk of soggy bag syndrome.
What can you do now? Well, apart from reusing your bags (after all, shouldn’t we use oil for something more than carrying home a packet of biscuits for 12 minutes), you can join in the call for the government to introduce a ban or a tax on single use plastic bags. Please sign the petition that has already been started on the government website and lets try and stop some of the waste. Ban the Bag!