A new law came into force on 5th October, requiring major retailers in England to charge customers at least 5p for their plastic bags. This was part of a new government scheme aiming to reduce the more than 7bn plastic bags handed out in Britain each year, in order to tackle litter problems, boost our economy, and work towards solving serious environmental issues. All for the cost of 5p per bag, this certainly sounds like a step in the right direction; why, then, has Britain reacted so badly?
Most people would undoubtedly agree that there are many benefits associated with this new charge. Firstly, the government claims that it will boost the British economy, saving £60m on litter clean-up costs, £13m in carbon savings, and overall contributing a massive £780m to our economy, not to mention the fact that retailers will be expected to donate the funds raised by the plastic bag charge to good causes. In Wales, where the 5p charge was introduced in 2011, between £17m and £22m has already been raised for charities as a result, and the government has predicted that up to £550m could be raised here. Equally, let’s not forget the environmental benefits which the new charge has the potential to bring. With so many excess plastic bags, littering has become a severe problem, resulting in 8m tonnes of plastic being dumped into our oceans every year. Environment Minister Rory Stewart has said that reducing plastic bags will result in a “cleaner, healthier country”. Clearly, the benefits are huge for such a small change.
In spite of all of this, judging by some of the reactions, you would think this small charge represented an outrageous breach of our entitlement to free plastic bags. Within hours of the new law being introduced, the Daily Mirror and the Daily Mail reported “chaos” on the streets; social media newsfeeds were clogged by people ranting, and rumours of violent arrests circulated the internet. Many saw the funny side of it, making melodramatic jokes on Twitter, whilst others discovered their inner entrepreneur, selling discounted plastic bags on the ‘black market’, but there were some who seemed seriously offended, using words such as “complicated”, “confusing” and “unhelpful”, and worrying about how the fee could affect security issues, make shoplifting easier and increase the theft of baskets and trolleys. Another concern related to how checkout staff would cope, with special training about how to deal with argumentative customers being proposed.
‘Overreaction’ doesn’t quite cover it. The 5p charge is not a new scheme; Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, along with the majority of European countries, all charge for plastic bags. We know that the benefits are significant, so why are people so outraged? It reflects poorly on our country’s reaction to change, and in particular our attitude towards environmental problems. The 5p charge is by no means unreasonable, and with much greater challenges ahead in working to reduce our carbon footprint, we will have to make sacrifices. Will England be ready to do this? Following the fall out this week, I’m worried that it won’t be so easy.