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Bit of a mixed bag on the environmental way forward

October 2013

There’s no pleasing some people. News that England is to finally follow in the footsteps of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland and introduce a charge on single-use carrier bags brought a mixed response. “Finally the government will help improve the environments we all love so much by implementing a policy that the Break The Bag Habit has shown to be popular with the public and effective in reducing litter,” beamed Andy Cummins, the campaign’s spokesperson.

However, Friends of the Earth’s policy and campaigns director, Craig Bennett issued a word of warning: “A plastic bag charge is welcome news, but let’s not get carried away. This small step will do little to tackle the nation’s huge waste mountain and can’t disguise the UK Government’s woeful green record. Tougher action and ambitious targets are needed to cut waste and boost recycling, and bring England in line with the rest of the UK and much of Europe.”

Personally, as you may have gathered from last month’s editorial, I was rather pleased. It may appear a drop in the ocean on some fronts – yes, it’s not a ban on carrier bags entirely (small and medium sized businesses don’t have to enforce the charge either) and no, it won’t mean that you’ll never see a rogue bag caught in the branches of roadside tree – but the move is a major aid to changing some very deep-rooted consumer behaviours.

Since Wales introduced the charge in October 2011, it’s seen a 76% reduction in single-use carrier bags. I think that initiatives for behaviour changes, even with small environmental impacts, make a lot of sense as they can lead to more far-reaching and environmentally significant changes in the longer run.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs behaviour change team has speculated that simple and painless actions may function “as entry points in helping different groups to make their lifestyles more sustainable.” And I agree, though I guess some people may not think a 5p charge for a bag is painless. However, you only have to take a look around the next time you’re in the supermarket to see how many people are already opting to take their own bags and by changing that mindset, you have the potential to make further green in-roads. Every little helps, as some may say…

Not that supermarkets are in my good books right now. While I was amused to read about the absurdly long paper receipt issued to a customer at CVS in the US recently – it came in at a staggering 38 inches (96cm) – it reminded me just how annoying I find the endless coupons I now receive with my regular receipt.

On the one hand retailers are trying to dissuade us from using carrier bags and yet on the other they are loading us down with half a sycamore to stuff into our purses. CVS explained its rationale behind the monster receipt was that it was an effective way to inform its rewards programme members about its benefits. In an age of apps and eReceipts, I’m not convinced. Other retailers please take note. 

Europe | Environment


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