I can’t believe I’m going to write a second post on carrier bags, let alone in the same week as the first, but that’s blogging for you. Tim Worstall did me a solid and linked to my piece over at his own blog, whereupon a number of people missed the point. So I’ll clarify.
Firstly, I wrote about my specific experience in my local supermarket where buying a carrier bag for 5p is not an option, so for all those people throwing their hands in the air and saying “Oh, it’s only 5p!” unfortunately it isn’t. And I’ll come back to you lot later. Although I did notice last time I was in that they’ve started offering paper bags (I don’t know for how much), so at least now customers have a (presumably) cheap option. But if tens of millions of paper bags are more environmentally friendly to produce, use, and dispose of than plastic bags then fair enough: but I don’t think it’s enough just to assume they are.
And that’s part of my problem with the ban. One of Tim’s commenters said:
I don’t see the objection. If you buy groceries unplanned, you pay 5p for a bag. Meanwhile, the charge has caused a massive reduction in plastic bag use, and the world will be a very slightly better place for it.
Why is it assumed that a reduction in plastic bag use makes the world a better place? Was it better for the poor lady in Avignon whose groceries spilled all over the street? Does using stronger, reusable plastic bags offer an overall improvement? If so, where are the studies to back it up? This article (thanks, Bardon) suggests the alternatives are not as good for the environment, partly because (as Tim W mentions) people would reuse carrier bags for other purposes anyway, and now they’ll be buying specific bags.
I think what has driven this ban is an assumption that the use of plastic is in itself bad. Why, other than some vague reference to “the environment”, is not really explained. An acquaintance of mine here in Paris took it upon herself to tell me she disagreed with my article and supported the ban because it reduced plastic use. When I asked why she thought this was a good thing, she said there is a lot of plastic in the sea. Which is true, but I very much doubt the plastic in the sea takes the form of carrier bags given away at checkouts in European supermarkets. But somebody has taken the leap from plastic in the sea to plastic in general and flogged it to the gullible in order to support a ban. Others talked about noticing a reduction in litter since the ban came into effect. Do we have data showing litter in the form of carrier bags across Europe before and after the various bans, are people happy to go with anecdotes and feelings? For if we accept the use of plastic in itself is bad, why carrier bags? Should we ban Bic biros and force everyone to use pencils?
What bothered me about the ban is that it was more than likely proposed by a “charity” or pressure-group whose members will almost certainly be wealthy middle-class; the ban would have been taken up by politicians who probably haven’t bought a trolley-load from a supermarket since barcode scanners came in; and now the population can sit back in smug satisfaction at having made the world a better place. Only a better place for whom? The wealthy middle-classes, of course. But what about the poor? The middle-classes who agitated for this ban probably don’t have to go shopping with 3 kids and take the bus home, do they? Oh no, they’ll drive the car to the nearest Waitrose, if they don’t already live within walking distance. Tell me, what would you rather use to take 15kgs of shopping home on the bus, a paper bag or a carrier bag? (Incidentally, my French acquaintance who approves of the ban lives alone and directly opposite an organic farmers’ market.) And for all the quips about being organised enough to bring a bag in advance, most people don’t realise that the lives of the poor are usually neither organised nor predictable, not least because people who live appallingly disorganised lives through no fault of their own are usually poor as a result.
And that’s what really pissed me off about the “Oh, it’s only 5p!” remark. Yes, it is only 5p, but it is 5p multiplied by however many carrier bags that is being taken out of the grocery budgets of the poorest in society. Of course the wealthy middle-classes can afford 5p, and as far as purchasing a moment of self-righteous smugness goes, this is pretty cheap. But this tax (for it is effectively that) is not the only one in existence and every incremental increase in the cost of living has made western Europe seriously bloody expensive to live in. So yes, it might be “only 5p”, but when you’re shit poor and you’ve been hit with another two or three dozen charges of “only” some nominal amount, it might not seem so negligible. It might also grate a little that those who lobbied for it are sitting in a quarter-of-a-million quid house.
And that was my point about the Soviet Union: the privileged imposing artificial material restrictions on society which hit those at the bottom hardest, all the while saying it is for their own good.
In summary, I’m not necessarily saying the ban on carrier bags is a bad thing. I just take objection to people making the assumption that plastic use is in itself bad, alternatives better, and the ban good as if it these were self-evident truths; and the lifestyle preferences of the wealthy middle-classes being imposed on everyone else with nothing but condescending dismissal of the costs and inconvenience to those not so fortunate.