Why plastic bags should be free

The latest war on these incredibly useful bags is fuelled by greens’ loathing of modern consumption habits.

Tom Bailey

Topics Politics

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Much like plastic bags, the campaign against them constantly lingers in the air and won’t degrade away. After recent figures showed a five per cent increase in plastic-bag use in England, activists from groups like the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), Keep Britain Tidy, the Marine Conservation Society (MCS) and Surfers Against Sewage are calling for England to follow in the green footsteps of the rest of the United Kingdom, and charge shoppers for each bag they use.

Plastic bags are blamed for killing wildlife, as animals mistake them for food or become entangled in them. They are accused of blighting the landscape as litter, as well as using up oil and contributing carbon emissions when they are being produced. However, this plastic-bag panic is out of proportion to reality. While plastic bags do contribute to waste, especially considering that they supposedly take between 400 and 1,000 years to degrade, the actual amount that they contribute overall is minimal.

Individually, a plastic bag weighs about eight grams. In total, we use about 10 billion of them a year, adding up to around 80,000 tonnes of plastic bags. A large number, perhaps, but not when compared with total municipal waste. The total amount of household waste produced each year is 29.6million tonnes. This means that plastic bags make up a mere 0.27 per cent of what we all throw away every year. This percentage would become even smaller if we were to include commercial and industrial waste in our calculations.

The total amount of oil used to produce plastic bags is also exaggerated, considering that most plastic bags are made using naphtha, a part of crude oil that isn’t used for much else and would probably be burnt away otherwise.

So what’s going on here? Why the panic about a simple little bag? The assault on plastic bags is really an assault on consumerism. There is a prevailing view among the green and mighty that consumerism is bad. It is portrayed as being a modern-day vice, devoid of meaning, something which atomises society, corrupting us through crude materialism and distracting us from more important issues.

Plastic bags are an outward reflection of the ease with which people can buy goods and take them home. People now have the disposable income to enter a shop unexpectedly and buy a load of stuff, and plastic bags mean they can rest assured they they will have the means to carry their purchases. How often do people returning home from work decide, on a whim, to make a quick stop at Tesco Express to buy a few items of food? How frequently, perhaps on a journey past Oxford Street, are we drawn into a sale by a piece of attractive clobber? Such nonchalant consumption would be made more difficult, perhaps more expensive, without shops’ provision of handy, free plastic bags.

By ridding the world of these sinful bags, consumption as we know and enjoy it would change. Before we left the house, we would have to decide whether to bring along canvas carrier bags or shove a ‘bag for life’ in our pockets, just in case we decided to buy a few goods later on in the day. We would have to stop and think: ‘Will I consume today?’ The luxury of modern-day consumption – which is its ease and the fact it can now be done on a whim – would be undermined. In the eyes of a handful of elitist green campaigners, this would be a good thing – but not for the rest of us.

Fewer plastic bags would also cause more inconvenience. Beyond their everyday and intended purpose of bringing home purchases, plastic bags are used for lots more. If the more out-there greens who actually want to ban plastic bags got their way, then the cyclist would have to find an alternative to the simple trick of covering his seat with a plastic bag to keep it dry; taking drinks to a party in a plastic bag that you could then just leave at the host’s house would no longer be an option. And when your black bin-liners run out, using a carrier bag as a substitute would be a thing of the past.

The waste from plastic bags is minimal when compared with overall waste. And the reason these thin pieces of plastic fashioned with handles are so prevalent is because they are incredibly useful. The campaign against them amounts to little more than a thinly veiled attack on the consumption and alleged littering habits of the masses.

Tom Bailey is a history undergraduate at University College London. He is currently interning at spiked. Visit his personal website here. Follow him on Twitter: @tbaileybailey

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

Topics Politics


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