Why are we still using plastic bags?

For many years plastic supermarket bags have caused terrible environmental problems. They are taken to landfill sites because they cannot be easily recycled, where they either do not rot in the ground or get blown over the countryside ensnaring birds and animals. They are made from finite resources like oil which itself has a significant climate change effect. It seems odd to use fuel to make bags, creating long term emissions instead of using recyclable and easily biodegradable materials like cotton, hemp or paper to carry the shopping.

Politicians took to calling these plastic bags “single use” but most households use their plastic bags twice – once to carry their supermarket shopping home and once as domestic bin liners.

Environmentalist rightly made a fuss about supermarkets giving away plastic bags. Supermarkets are large dominating monopolistic enterprises and they are all about market share, squeezing supplier’s prices and making offers to encourage spending as their highly successful and expanding businesses pursue the golden dream of most economists – economic growth.

The supermarkets decided a year ago that the publicity about single use plastic bags was damaging their environmental credentials – or perhaps I should write perceived environmental credentials. It got bad when the Prime Minister got in on the act, decrying the widespread use of plastic bags. Other nations had taken steps to restrict them but the United Kingdom, self professed leaders on climate change, had done nothing but stuff used plastic bags into landfills.

As a result of all the fuss the supermarkets resolved to reduce the amount of plastic bags voluntarily by half. Each supermarket had a different angle. Marks & Spencers charged their customers for bags used in the food section (but not the clothing section) and said they would give a proportion of the charge to environmental causes. Other supermarkets gave extra loyalty points when customers recycled bags. Others gave free recyclable bags or, better still for them, sold permanent shopping bags.

The problem that plastic bags solve is our inherent laziness; we have all gotten into the habit of not taken a shopping bag to the shops. We do this because the shops have been giving us free plastic bags.

If you are walking home from work and you decide to do some shopping you will not usually carry a bag with you. No one carries the old string bag any more, do they? No matter, the supermarket will provide as many free bags as you need  to help you in your impulse purchases. They understand your behaviour better than you and know your habits more closely than you know them.

In 2006 in the UK over 718 million plastic bags were handed out by the few large supermarket chains. Recently figures show that the voluntary efforts of the supermarkets have reduced that figure by nearly half. Mr Hilary Benn, Environment Secretary, thinks that this is a “great achievement”.

I think that it is odd. If plastic bags are so bad for the environment why not make them illegal for supermarkets to provide? That way you could prevent all of the 718 million supermarket plastic bags being used, not just half of them. The government is very keen to make laws about all sorts of things that they perceive desirable – over 3600 new criminal offences have been crated in the past ten years – so why not plastic bags legislation?

Of course, supermarkets could hand out or sell bags made from different biodegradable materials and if we found these too expensive or too inconvenient (as a paper bag might spill the shopping when it gets wet in the rain) the we would change our environmentally bad habits very quickly, wouldn’t we?

Creating legislation to protect the environment would be met with fierce lobbying by the supermarkets and plastic bag matters. The supermarkets want to get the kudos of appearing to be environmentally excellent, rather than being forced to behave in environmentally correct ways.

Another reason that makes supermarkets wanting to keep plastic bags in circulation is that their customers’ scope for impulse purchases would reduce but they needn’t worry too much about this; the “two for the price of one” offers (instead of halving the price of one) would still be there to encourage excessive consumption and excessive immoderate consumption fall kinds is at the heart of environmental damage.

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