Carrier Bags: Mountains, Molehills, Carrots and Sticks

Good news! After a few months of grumbling England seems to have accepted the 5p plastic bag charge.

Tesco recently reported that it has reduced bag use by 80%, and is set to raise in excess of £30 million from the sales (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-35013520).This money is going in its entirety to the greenspace development charity Groundwork. Groundwork will then distribute it to local environmental schemes, through a reasonably convoluted in-store voting scheme.

While this is unquestionably good news, it also highlights the culture of waste that has been fostered by big business and embraced by consumers, and dangerous inconsistencies in our approach to tackling waste.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Source: Wikimedia Commons

For one thing the reduction in bag use only scratches the surface of a truly enormous problem, created by a business culture that favours disposable products and built-in obsolescence, where short term profit goes above long-term social and environmental stability. And the problem is still growing.

Think about this. Despite this 80% reduction, Tesco is still distributing 600 million carrier bags a year – about 4,800 tonnes worth of completely unnecessary plastic. But what would happen if they sold twice as many carrier bags? That would be bad, right? Wrong. If they did, they would make twice as much money for environmental projects.

This form of punitive charge, essentially a tax on environmental damage, creates a Catch-22 situation, whereby environmental damage becomes good for the environment. As a policy, it’s pretty common. Take recycling. That’s a good thing, right? Increased recycling means that less rubbish is being landfilled. Good news? Yes, unless you are an environmental charity that relies on landfill tax credits paid by waste companies every time they dump waste. Fewer landfill sites equals less money for the environment sector.

You can see the logic of such a policy – the adverse effect of a certain practice (known in economic parlance as a ‘negative externality’) is remunerated by a financial cost that repairs any damage incurred. Not only does this make damaging the environment seem morally acceptable, it also makes the false assumption that environmental damage can be fixed by throwing a small amount of money at it. Ask yourself  – does £30 million worth of suburban green space development fix the problem of our littered seas? Does, for that matter, distributing an eye-watering 600 million carrier bags a year?

Businesses give out free carrier bags in order to increase sales. In spite of this it is the consumer, weaned into certain behavioural modes, who is being punished for pan-industry unethical business practice (how is Tesco punished for its pollution of our seas and waterways with billions of plastic bags? By being legally obliged to receive the good publicity of working with an environmental charity on local green projects, while still being allowed to distribute as many plastic bags as they want). The simple fact that clever packaging sells products explodes the myth that the customer is always right, and that businesses will only produce a product if there is a need for it. By targeting the consumer, the carrier bag charge is letting businesses off the hook.

Ultimately, what the 5p charge highlights is the uncomfortable truth that both big business and consumers care about money far more than seemingly abstract environmental issues. For both consumer and producer, the stick (the 5p charge) is more effective at altering behaviour than the carrot (protecting the environment).

This is not a glib aphorism. It is the sort of psychological insight that successful businesses and governments have been exploiting for centuries, and that the environment sector needs to embrace if it wants to affect real change.

Real environmental improvement can only occur when consumers are adequately educated about the implications of the choices they make, both financial and environmental, and the power they have to affect real social change and force businesses to tow the line (two things that big business will generally fight against tooth and nail). Failing that, the carrier bag charge proves that in certain instances, and for the wrong reasons, government intervention can be a powerful force in environmental protection.

I do see grounds for optimism. Ethical consumer goods, from free range eggs to fair trade coffee, are seeing dramatic sales increases, as they move from the realms of aspirational branding to social mainstay. In Britain at least (I cannot speak for any other country), people do seem to be making more informed choices about the products that they buy. The carrier bag charge may only be a proverbial molehill, but it proves, at least in theory, that the mountain can be summited.

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Andy Painting

Writer, I guess.

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