Charge for Plastic Bags in Britain Draws Applause, Anger and Humor

by Dan Bilefsky

Source: The New York Times

The Daily Mail predicted, “Plastic Bags Chaos Looms.” Chloe Metzger, a 21-year-old blogger and student, wrote on Twitter: “I understand the whole #plasticbags thing but it couldn’t be more annoying.”

Nerves were rattled, jokes were made and the annoyance of it all was duly noted in Britain this week. Nevertheless, shoppers pulled off something that has also occurred in other cities, states and countries: They began weaning themselves off plastic shopping bags.

Starting this week, the government introduced a 5 pence charge for plastic bags for most groceries, clothes and other purchased items. And while it did not lead to a nationwide mutiny, as some had warned, it did create some tension in cashier lines.

The British government imposed the charge, which started on Monday, as a way to reduce pollution and waste. When bags are not flying in the breeze, entangled in trees or floating down waterways, they are taking up space in landfills — and it can take 1,000 years for a plastic bag to decompose, according to an estimate by Nick Clegg, who was deputy prime minister at the time the charge was announced.

Last year, major supermarkets in England handed out roughly 7.6 billion single-use plastic bags, about 140 per person, the government has estimated. Charging for them is not only meant to encourage people to use cloth or other renewable bags, they said; it also could save and make money.

The government estimates that the fee, equivalent to about 8 cents, will help reduce the cost of cleaning up garbage by 60 million pounds, or about $80 million, over the next decade. Stores and supermarkets are being encouraged to donate the proceeds from the bag charge to charities, which could also drive £730 million ($1.1 billion) to charitable causes, officials said.

Some critics predicted chaos and “bag rage.” Some said shoppers would be confused by the long list of exemptions; shoppers can still get a free plastic bag if they are buying pet fish; raw fish, meat or poultry; unwrapped blades (including axes, knives and razor blades); takeout food; or loose seeds and flowers.

There are also worries that customers might verbally abuse supermarket cashiers, and some retailers have provided members of their staff with training on how to cope with angry shoppers.

Then there were concerns that shoppers would throng the British capital’s already crowded streets, clutching, for example, jars of tomato sauce. One man who did not want to pay for a plastic bag for a single item was seen walking down a street in North London holding a package of wrapped salmon.

The new rules in England apply to retailers with more than 250 full-time employees. Retailers that fail to properly enforce the measure can be fined up to £5,000 (about $7,600).

Similar charges for plastic bags exist in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland, but that seems to have had no influence on the critics. In Wales, use of plastic bags has dropped 79 percent since a charge of 5 pence was put in effect in 2011.

Similar efforts to regulate plastic bags have been put in place across the world.

In 2002, Bangladesh became the first country to introduce a ban on thin plastic bags because of concerns that they were clogging drainage pipes and contributing to devastating flooding.

In 2008, Rwanda banned plastic bags, helping to solidify its image as one of the most environmentally conscious nations in East Africa.

In the United States, many communities have regulated or even prohibited the bags. Since 2007, they have been banned in nearly 100 municipalities in California, including Los Angeles. In 2014, California banned stores from giving out free plastic bags. The law was to take effect in July, but after lobbying by opponents of the bill, including the bag industry, a referendum on whether to repeal the ban is planned for November 2016.

Only a tiny fraction of plastic bags are recycled. “Plastic bags end up everywhere — stashed in cupboards, floating down canals, littering our streets or killing wildlife,” Friends of the Earth, a British environmental group, said in a statement welcoming the new measure in England.

The TaxPayers’ Alliance, an anti-tax group, said the new measure would burden families struggling to get by.

A 2013 study by the National Center for Policy Analysis in Washington, which champions laissez-faire economics, argued that paper and reusable bags were worse for the environment than plastic bags when it came to energy and water use, and to greenhouse gas emissions. “Every type of grocery bag incurs environmental costs,” wrote H. Sterling Burnett, the author of the study.

Whatever the arguments, the charge has inspired a mix of applause, resentment, fear and humor.

It has also inspired ingenious new ways to try to get around paying the new fee. The Daily Express, a British tabloid, noted that there was “nothing to stop Brits buying loose vegetables, being rewarded with their free plastic bag and ramming it full of the rest of the shopping.”

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