Can the bag !

September has seen the launch of the “Break the Bag Habit” campaign in England. This is being promoted by a coalition of the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), Keep Britain Tidy, the Marine Conservation Society and Surfers Against Sewage. The aim is to persuade the government to introduce a charge for single-use plastic bags. You can take action to support the campaign by clicking through to its web page here.

Apparently, we used 8 billion plastic bags in 2011 and it is well documented that plastic bags are often littered and can cause fatal injuries to wildlife on land and at sea.

The good news is that a poll of 1,752 English adults found that 75% said they would try to cut down on the use of new plastic bags if there was a 5p charge on them and 56% agreed that a 5p carrier bag charge was not unreasonable, even in a time of austerity as it has proved to reduce litter and waste. 54% of those questioned thought that a 5p charge should be introduced.

In Wales, where a 5p charge was introduced in October 2011, the number of plastic bags taken home has fallen significantly. Northern Ireland is bringing in a charge next year and Scotland is consulting on the issue.

Well, where does that all leave us ? I’d like to make it clear at the outset that I am fully in favour of the Break the Bag Habit campaign as, if it is successful in persuading the government to introduce a charge for bags in England, then it will undoubtedly reduce the usage of plastic bags and so mean less waste and fewer littered bags.

But I can’t help feeling just a little bit sorry for the poor old plastic bag as I think that it is an easy target and is therefore used as a bit of a scapegoat. If you look at Keep Britain Tidy’s statistics for the sorts of items that are generally littered, plastic bags are found only in 4% of sites where there is litter, compared to smoking related litter in 83% of sites, confectionery wrappers in 69% of sites and soft drinks packaging in 54% of sites.

The point is, of course, that it is relatively easy to introduce a charge for plastic bags whereas how on earth do you limit the littering of other items by the use of charging or other financial incentives ? For a start, a deposit scheme for bottles and cans would assuredly reduce the number of bottles littered – but successive governments have been reluctant to introduce such a scheme. But what about sweet wrappers, crisp packets, fast food containers and, numerically the most littered items, cigarette ends and chewing gum ? Should we be enforcing a discount on chocolate if people agree to buy it without a wrapper ? Should we pay less at the chippy if we take our own plate along ? Should smokers or chewers be rewarded for presenting the retailer with their used butts or gum ?? Yuck – what a thought !

And I cannot resist pointing out an interesting and, to my mind, paradoxical little side-effect of a “ban the bag” approach. And that is that many of us who collect litter regularly take plastic carrier bags in our pockets when we go out for a walk. If these bags are no longer freely available, we will all have to find an alterative source of litter receptacles. Suggestions on the back of a postcard, please……….

So my plea is that, commendable though the plastic bag campaign is, we should look at littered items as a whole and come up with a consistent, unified plan to stop people from littering these things. Only then will we start to make real progress in tidying up our lovely country.

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