Across societies, relatively small policy changes have led to real change. Getting people off a lazy addiction to plastic bags (and thus reducing plastic impacts — from use of fossil fuels to produce them, to reduced litter on the streets, to reduced impacts on wildlife) is one example. Over a decade ago, the institution of a 33 cents per bag fee in Ireland led to a 93 percent reduction of plastic bag use within a decade. Washington DC’s five-cent per bag fee is credited with cutting DC’s plastic bag use (with resulting impacts in terms of reduced plastic bags showing up in annual Anacostia River cleanups and otherwise). The fees spark people to think and have, for many, an impact far greater than the actual price involved. Go to shops in most of Western Europe and you will see the vast (typically nearly 100% each day) majority of people walking in with their own bags and the shopkeepers very used to handling a wide range of size, style, nature of bag for packing up purchases.
As with so many things surrounding us, plastic bags (and, of course, plastics) are big (BIG) business. Thus, there are plentiful resources for fighting tooth-and-nail against bag fees. This includes money spent to “prove” that plastic bags are better for the environment than — well — anything else and to argue for the collapse of modern human society if there is the slightest inhibition created to their profligate (ab)use.
Such was the warning from The Daily Mail that a new 5 pence per bag charge in three UK cities would “cause chaos” on High Street. Truth be told, there are some legitimate reasons to call this a confusing approach:
- Bags with handles should have a charge, no handles free.
- Only stores with >250 employees (e.g, mainly chains) should charge.
- “Unwrapped food, raw meat and fish, prescription medicines, uncovered blades, seeds, bulbs and flowers and live fish are exempt.”
Really, “prescription medicines” really need a free plastic bag (as if that container of antibiotic bills really can’t fit in a pocket)? (Note: I am with the “environmentalists” who believe that a simple flat fee, without exceptions, is the more sensible move.)
In any event, when it came to the first day of implementation, a Guardian reporter tested the waters and found some confusion and differing perspectives as to the shopping bag charge but, writ large, when asked to investigate “Is there really panic on the streets?“, the result: “Despite dire warnings, our reporter fails to uncover chaotic scenes on our high streets, and even manages to acquire a few free bags.”
My prediction: this will be incorporated into daily life and this 5p charge will help drive down plastic bag use and reduce public littering in these cities.
We will not ‘solve’ our societal problems and adequately address climate change with incremental changes like (confusing) 5p charges on plastic bags. Yet, we will not “solve” our societal problems and adequately address climate change without such incremental changes.
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