Britain’s got it in the bag: Plastic levy nothing to tut about

Britain’s got it in the bag: Plastic levy nothing to tut about

British grocery stores are charging customers to use plastic shopping bags. Photo by Peter Byrne | Courtesy of the Evening Standard

Courtney Linder
/ Senior Columnist

October 11, 2015

“The Hot Tea” is a weekly column dedicated to unearthing the intricacies of London’s social, political and millennial issues in context of Pittsburgh’s own complex culture.

LONDON – Armored in mahogany and orange uniforms, workers at English supermarket Sainsbury’s recently became the government’s foot soldiers charged with implementing its new policy on plastic bags. 

Meanwhile, a clearly disgruntled mother glares at a self-checkout machine and tells it to “piss off” when a dialogue box pops up, querying whether she’d like a plastic bag for five pence to hold her milk and assorted groceries.

Her kid, an employee and I exchanged mutually helpless glances.

With last Monday’s introduction of a five-pence charge for each plastic bag retailers hand out, Britons are tutting under their breath with a new ferocity. Meanwhile, the Russian nesting dolls of plastic bags under their sinks — the ones overstuffed with other plastic bags — have finally found their lives’ purpose.

Much like last month’s updated Bring Your Own Bag initiative on Pitt’s campus, England has instituted a levy against plastic carrier bags in an attempt to reduce the country’s carbon footprint — and rightfully so. The new law is a prime example of the type of sustainability actions America needs to adopt as a whole in order to better our environment.

Last year alone, the United Kingdom passed out over 8.5 billion single-use plastic bags to consumers, according to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. This figure has steadily increased over the past four years. Much of this alarming statistic can be traced back to England — the last country in the United Kingdom to institute a plastic bag charge.

Scotland, Wales and Ireland have each seen a significant decrease in the number of plastic bags citizens consume daily. Wales, in particular, passed out 78.2 percent less plastic since 2010 when their government instituted a charge on carrier bags at large retailers, according to The Guardian.

Over the next decade, the British government hopes the charge will reduce the number of bags taken home from supermarkets by 80 percent, according to the BBC. But it’s not just in grocery stores — this initiative applies to clothing stores, tourist attractions and even restaurants. I had to pay five pence to hold my Subway sandwich (even though it wasn’t a full-size bag) and another five pence to support my H&M binge.

Next time I go shopping in London, I’m bringing a backpack like I used to at Pitt — and like I assume students at home continue to do.

Not only will this small sacrifice save the turtles from dying in plastic bag debris — which actually breaks my heart more than sad pet commercials accompanied by Celine Dion — but it will also significantly cut carbon costs and taxpayer pounds used to clean up the litter by £13 million and £60 million, respectively.

So what’s this mother fussing about when she has to fork over a whopping five pence for a plastic bag? Surely she’s not breaking the bank, and I assume she’d never admit to loathing turtles.

After all, a survey of over 2,000 Britons, commissioned by Break the Bag Habit coalition, found that 62 percent of people agreed a five pence charge was “reasonable.” So, put simply, it’s not the bags’ cost that is so irritating — it’s something else beneath the surface.

The idea that retailers keep the money, as the charge is not officially a tax collected by the government, is likely at fault. While retailers must report to government ministers what they do with the funds raised through the levy, there’s no repercussions for simply pinching cash off the top. Of course, the British government recommends giving the money to charities or organizations that aim to protect the environment — but again, this is not a necessity.

According to the BBC, these retailers will generate an estimated £730 million over the next ten years. It’s helpful that the government will remain transparent and publish where the funds go, but it doesn’t mean companies care.

Why not shift the burden onto the stores themselves rather than the consumer? After all, these retail giants are the ones who bred us into the mass consumers we are today. Supermarkets wanted to turn a profit — but how can you make 2-for-1 deals a success if your customers don’t want to lug it all home in their arms?

It’s not our fault that corporations created a generation of plastic bag dependents out of sheer greed. The British government should make grocers and retailers alike pay the levy on the bags. In that scenario, retailers  would likely not even offer plastic bags but reusable bags instead.

Not only does this decrease plastic waste, but also if a store wants to charge for a reusable canvas bag, it’s more merited because it’s perceived as a product in and of itself.

Outside the realm of tutting British consumers, there’s still a larger plastic battle raging on in the States. At home, we use about 100 billion plastic bags per year — enough for one person to take home one bag each day, according to Earth Policy Institute.

Not to mention, North America is the single greatest contributor to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a mass of trash that spans from the west coast of North America to Japan. The majority of the mass is constituted of plastic, and 80 percent of that rubbish comes from North America and Asia, according to National Geographic.

While it’s great to see that Pitt — as well as the entire state of California — has taken a stand against plastic bags, it’s simply not enough. Just 20 million Americans live in regions with plastic bag bans or fees. That’s less than 7 percent of the population. The other 93 percent are free to collect plastic bags under their sink indefinitely.

So as I watch this mother’s face morph into a deep, angry rouge, I realize that her dissatisfaction isn’t all her fault. Corporations have trained us to expect plastic bags. When you take away something that familiar, it gets uncomfortable.

But it’s imperative that we get uncomfortable — whether that’s a tax or a switch to biodegradable bags, it’s a must in America. As one of the world’s largest economies, our habits aren’t sustainable forever, and they affect the rest of the globe.

The next time I go to Sainsbury’s, I’m purposely leaving my change purse behind and bringing a bag I already have at home.

I have at least 40 plastic bags already under the sink, longing for use, that won’t degrade for hundreds of years. They’re probably pretty bored under there.  I won’t deny them their birthright.

Courtney Linder is a senior columnist at The Pitt News, primarily focusing on social issues and technology.

Write to her at


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