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Brown’s got a brand new bag

The UK prime minister’s latest ‘big idea’ is to get rid of plastic carrier bags - the petty contemporary symbol of human wastefulness.

Angus Kennedy

Topics Science & Tech

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Time may be running out for the humble plastic bag. The carrier has become an easy way for politicians in every country, and right across the political spectrum, to be seen to be ‘doing something’ about the environment. The innocuous plastic bag has become a powerful contemporary symbol of human greed and wasteful consumerism.

For Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s increasingly exhausted government, big ideas are in short supply. Small crusades will have to do. And following the finger-on-the-pulse popularity of Jamie Oliver’s personal jihad on Britain’s high-fat, high-sugar, low-quality school dinners, Brown has decided he will liberate us from the throwaway society by ridding us of the scourge of the plastic bag. In a speech to the World Wildlife Fund on 19 November, Brown said he was ‘convinced that we can eliminate single-use disposable bags altogether in favour of longer lasting and more sustainable alternatives’ (1).

As spiked has previously noted, for politicians with no big ideas of their own, it’s pretty good to be ‘seen to be green’ (2). Since, as Brown pointed out, the plastic bag is ‘one of the most visible symbols of environmental waste’, it was inevitable that he should jump on this particular ban-wagon. The plastic carrier bag is an omnipresent reminder of human weakness. Never mind how useful it might be. Never mind that its environmental impact is minimal. By banning the bag, Brown will be elevating us all: up above our petty and all-too-worldly concerns, our feckless and shallow consumerism.

The plastic bag is suddenly the zeitgeist issue. London councils have been conducting polls to find out if people will support a ban or a 10 pence levy on bags. With the results now in, and 58.2 per cent of their respondents saying ‘yes’ to a ban, the London councils have just deposited a Bill with parliament, seeking ‘to ban the distribution of free, throwaway shopping bags in the capital’ (3). It seems that Brown might have found a populist mast to tie himself to at last. Voters seem willing to go along with the idea that they need bans, like the one on smoking, to force them to behave better.

This is one ban-wagon that’s getting mighty crowded. Conservative candidate for mayor of London, Boris Johnson, pre-empted Brown’s call to make the plastic bag a thing of the past. Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Johnson reminds readers that he opposed Labour policies on ‘smoking, snacking, smacking, hunting and making jokes about religion’. ‘Yet when I saw that London councils had unanimously decided, with cross-party approval, to do away with the plastic bags given out free in the capital’s shops and supermarkets, I am afraid that my heart sang. It is especially now, when the leaves are off the trees, that you can see the way these bags insult the landscape… the result is that we are slowly sprinkling the planet with the crinkly detritus of our consumption.’ (4)

The campaigns to ban the bag really gathered momentum this summer after the village of Modbury in South Devon became the first town in Britain to ban plastic bags, inspired by an environmental campaigner (5). Rebecca Hosking’s campaign has been ‘successful’ enough that carrying a plastic bag is now seen in Modbury as ‘antisocial behaviour’.

But this is not just Little Englanders expressing a preference for wicker baskets over polyethylene. The French banned them two years ago. San Francisco has become the first American city to ban plastic bags. The Irish have whacked a tax on them that has dramatically cut their usage.

Probably the only people to be really surprised at this stampede to impose taxes and bans are the researchers at the UK government-funded Waste Resources Action Programme (WRAP). The WRAP researchers found that a tax on bags in Ireland meant that people who previously reused free bags provided by supermarkets as bin liners, or to bundle-up recycling, were now having to buy bags instead – while alternatives to plastic bags such as paper actually use more resources. Still, never mind what the advisers say. Who needs evidence when you’re launching a moral crusade?

Everyday shoppers are now increasingly portrayed as junk junkies, unable to break the cycle of consumption. Plastic bags are no longer simply freely available to shoppers, but ‘thrust into their hands whenever they visit the supermarket’ (6). People are seen as both the unwitting victims of evil corporations, waiting to be saved by the evangelism of a Rebecca Hosking, and as the greedy perpetrators of green sins, requiring suitable chastisement, such as being made to live with their own rubbish as councils refuse to empty their over-full bins (7). This contradiction perfectly expresses the feeling that we live in a society not of our own choosing but one that we believe ourselves powerless to change: with the market seen as natural, the only alternative to consumer society is to resist its blandishments, to try to do without.

And what better time to try to say no than at Christmas, that greedy icing on our consumerist cake? The plastic bag is the perfect target for the organisation We Are What We Do, which has launched a festive killjoy campaign – ‘A bag is not just for Xmas…’ – just in case we might let our guard down (8).

The plastic bag itself simply does not warrant this kind of attention. Weighing in at an average of only eight grams each, the number of plastic bags used in Britain each year – about 10billion – amount to only 0.27 per cent of our annual municipal waste (9). Plastic bags don’t produce methane gas when in landfill sites – unlike paper bags – and are only a by-product of fossil fuel use. If the naphtha left over from the distillation of crude oil were not used to make plastic bags, it would simply be burned away (10). Which, as it happens, is what could be done to plastic bags after they have been used. Incineration of plastic releases its energy to make electricity: it is not necessarily the case that recycling is obligatory for plastic or that we need to ban bags (11).

But it is really as a symbol that the plastic bag is under attack, a symbol of the wasteful evil that is humanity. Rebecca Hosking puts it clearly: ‘We are 60million people eating up vast amounts of valuable natural resources … this can only lead to us drowning in our own waste and cooking in our own gasses. Plastic bags clogging our waterways and climate change are two symptoms of the same problem – unsustainability.’ (12) While it is not clear who would use these ‘valuable natural resources’ if human beings did not, what is clear is Hosking’s fashionable disdain for the human species. So greedy is humanity that it hungers for its own destruction in the mixed metaphor of death by drowning and cooking. Humanity as nothing but a ravening maw.

Contrary to Hosking’s assertion, the limits to the Earth’s resources are not fixed – they are entirely relative to the state of our technological abilities at any point in time. But once it is accepted that our resources are limited, then the only solution is to do without. This new Malthusianism is all the more frightening in that, unlike in Reverend Malthus’ time, we are no longer living in a society with any great enthusiasm for generating the kind of scientific and technological advancement that we need to create a better world. The ‘fourth technological revolution’ that Brown called for in his speech is nothing to rival the steam engine, the internal combustion engine or the micro-processor. Instead, he calls for reductions in emissions, improved efficiency and carbon-free energy sources (13). The real message here is: make do with less and make that bit less go even further.

Once upon a time, another Labour prime minister, Harold Wilson, embraced the promise of new technology, saying there was no place for ‘restrictive practices’ in a new Britain to be ‘forged in the white heat of this revolution’. But that was over 40 years ago. In Brown’s bag-free and vision-less Britain, there seems to be little room for anything but restrictions and bans.

With high-energy light bulbs to be phased out by 2011, now might be the time to fill your cloth sack with ashes and beeswax candles. Or, you could put lights on your unsustainable Christmas tree and tell Brown to go stick his head in a bag. It’s up to you.

Angus Kennedy has degrees in classics and linguistics and works as an IT consultant. He is a member of the organising committee of the Battle of Ideas.

Previously on spiked

Rob Lyons interrogated our attitudes to packaging, rubbish and plastic bags. Mick Hume looked at Gordon Brown’s record in government and said ‘Bottler Brown’ is the PM British politics deserves. Brendan O’Neill listed 10 reasons why Gordon Brown is unfit to be prime minister. Or read more at spiked issue Environment.

(1) Prime Minister calls for global action on climate change, 10 Downing Street

(2) Who’s afraid of plastic bags?, by Rob Lyons

(3) London takes a lead on banning throw away shopping bags, London Councils, 13 November 2007

(4) Bin those plastic bags, Boris Johnson, Daily Telegraph, 15 November 2007

(5) World asks town that banned the plastic bag: how can we do it too?, Guardian, 12 May 2007

(6) A simple and proven solution, Independent, 1 December 2007

(7) No bin collection if lid is not shut, The Times (London), 27 November 2007

(8) A bag is not just for Xmas…, We Are What We Do

(9) Who’s afraid of plastic bags?, by Rob Lyons

(10) Fight climate change? Or stay competitive? I’m afraid these two aims are incompatible, Independent, 1 December 2007

(11) Chuck out these green myths with the rest of the trash, The Times (London), 28 November 2007

(12) She has changed the national perspective about plastic bags in a few months. She should be prime minister, Guardian, 23 November 2007

(13) Prime Minister calls for global action on climate change, 10 Downing Street

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Science & Tech

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