While many billions of plastic bags are used each year, their contribution to climate change is actually minimal. In his book Carbon Detox, the environmental writer George Marshall calculates that on average, our annual use of plastic bags produces only 5 kg of the enormous 12,500 kg of carbon dioxide we pump out each year.
So the environmental impact of our use of plastic bags is tiny in comparison to everything else we get up to. True, they don’t disappear quickly and tend to get swallowed by both land and sea life. Nevertheless it puts the scale of the problem into perspective.
With this in mind, I was delighted to read that the Welsh Government has recently passed legislation mandating that shoppers will have to pay five pence for every plastic bag they use. Some people consider this to be too little. At one stage the Welsh Government wanted to charge 15 pence per bag, which was then reduced to seven pence and eventually became five.
To my mind, five pence per bag is more than enough and amounts to an effective ban on people expecting them for free with their shopping. In short, I think the new legislation will do its job and I’m certain that greater numbers of us will begin bringing our own plastic bags when shopping in the future.
But is it enough to charge for plastic bags?
The answer, unfortunately, is no. The new legislation is hardly going to save the planet, because our use of plastic bags accounts for only 3.2% of our domestic waste. But I’m not sure that assuaging people’s guilt is necessarily the point.
No, for me the real point of the Welsh Government’s exercise is about changing people’s behaviour and attitudes towards consumption. It’s the same as recycling: trundling down to the bottle bank is not going to save the planet, but the fact that so many of us do it marks a significant development in terms of our behaviour, and the habits we have formed. So behavioural change is the key message here, and I believe that it will slowly but surely begin to make a difference as these new-found habits spread to other areas of our lives. After all, we now need to think about:
- Insulating our homes
- Turning our lights off
- Driving more slowly
- The possibility of adding solar panels to our rooftops
- Leaving our cars at home and using public transport
- Accepting the environmental “taxes” that are sure to follow
All of the above amounts to billions of daily events that on their own are irrelevant, but collectively will begin to make a real difference.
Even behavioral change won’t solve global warming. As readers of A Rush of Green will know, I believe that the way to save the planet lies in new technology. However if people’s mindsets are already attuned to thinking that changes in their behaviour will help, this will inevitably speed the process up.
Perhaps the most shocking aspect of the “how we use our plastic bags” issue is how the retailers fought the plastic bag charges tooth and nail. They wanted self-regulation and I understand why. They fear that the new charge is the thin edge of a very thick wedge of regulation coming their way. That said, the big four supermarkets control 75% of the market. Surely this means that collectively, they could have introduced the charge themselves and given the money straight back to environmental causes. It isn’t as if they couldn’t afford it: Tesco alone has earned £1.9 billion in the last six months. So much for their combined environmental credentials!
With this in mind, how much would you pay for a plastic bag?