Guest blog – Bag Charge by Janice Hume



Janice writes: I am a bookseller by trade, currently manager of a branch of Waterstones. My passion for books is more than matched by my passion for wildlife and wild places.

Bag charge

It’s a year since the Government imposed a small charge  on single use plastic bags and in my experience on the retail front line, older men have the biggest problem with it. Women tend to be the most organised in bringing bags with them, younger men like to balance towers of shopping like a circus act, kids don’t consider 5 pence to be worth thinking about. But every day I encounter someone, usually an above middle aged man, who thinks the charge is a stealth tax, a conspiracy between retailers and the government to squeeze money out of the oppressed, an injustice on a national scale.

Today’s objector is particularly loud and offensively offended, jabbing the air with an accusing finger and spraying the counter with self-righteous spittle. Of course he can afford five pence. In fact, he is unlikely to bother to reach down and pick such a coin off the street should he walk past one. It’s an insignificant amount.

While he pontificates, a lazy wasp of late summer mistakes our bookshop doorway for the bakery next door and cruises in past the rows of best sellers. Past the volumes of fact and fiction, enlightenment and escapism, education and ephemera. It begins to circle the ranting man’s head and I briefly fantasise that it will fly down his throat and sting him on the tonsil but stop myself. After all,  that’s no way for a wasp to die.

Luckily a queue is forming and I have to blank Mr Angry and move on, this time serving a sympathetic woman with her own fabric bag and cheery smile.

It is now over a year since the bag charge was imposed in England, following the good example already set by Wales. In many ways it has already been fantastically successful, reducing the number of single usage carrier bags given out by large retailers by many millions. The bag charges have gone to charity and have amassed significant amounts. Aldi embarked on a three year partnership with the RSPB aiming to be worth £2 million. Already, in the first year, the supermarket has donated more than three quarters of a million to the Connecting Children with Nature project.

The message is still muddied though and clearly has not convinced everyone. For every 5p donated to the RSPB, another plastic bag has entered the environment and may potentially end up in the stomach of a leatherback turtle, to lethal effect. (The Sea Life Centres are great at hitting home the devastating effects of plastic in our oceans). For every smiling lady with a hessian bag there is a shrugging teenager, more than willing to add a few invisible pence to a contactless payment rather than actually come prepared to shop with bag in hand.

The hostile attitude of many older shoppers confuses me because I clearly remember my own parents having a stash of bags under the stairs which they took with them on their weekly shopping trip. Perhaps that is the difference … shopping involved a weekly trip in those days, now it can be done on the hoof on any day of the week and at almost any hour of the day. It’s hard to have bag in hand for impulse purchases.

There is also an urban myth that retailers can’t impose the bag charge if their logo is on the bag. Incorrect. On the odd occasion a customer has turned our bag inside out as a protest against paying 5p to advertise for us, hilarious as our giant W logo is exactly the same inside out and back to front!

Very rarely does anyone acknowledge the actual purpose of the bag charge, to encourage people to shun the single use plastic bag and re-use bags for life, thus massively reducing the amount of plastic heading for landfill or strewn around the countryside and coast. Are we really too lazy and selfish to make such a small effort to achieve such good?

Well no, many millions of us have embraced or at least accepted the measures. But it would be really helpful if the benefits of reducing plastic bag usage could be trumpeted abroad at every opportunity in every type of media. Just so that those of us manning checkouts can ask the question, ‘do you need a bag?’, without flinching.


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26 Replies to “Guest blog – Bag Charge by Janice Hume”

  1. Thank you, Janice, for letting me know I'm not alone! Mind you, I would have been very tempted to put a bag over Mr Angry's head! Darn it, they've got holes in.
    The Tesco scheme has seen fabulous amounts given to charities. Our local has 3 wildlife charities this time, so it's win-win for wildlife. However, as I came out of the shop yesterday, stopping to add my token to the mix, I heard a chap ( yes, bloke), over 70ish, say to his Mrs ' not worth bothering with those'. Maybe the sooner my generation has popped its clogs, the better. Education for the youngsters has to be the way to go.

  2. I don't know if this is related, but since the Brexit vote I've has several unpleasant experiences. Brexit has given the nastiest bigoted underbelly of the English middle class licence to be extraordinarily rude and confrontational. They've had enough of "experts" remember - an expert being anyone who knows any inconvenient facts and has the temerity to mention them. People screaming at me that "we're out of Europe now, we don't have to do all this environmental rubbish, we can do what we want!".

    The vote to leave the EU was not a vote to trash all our environmental protections, but there's no doubt that quite a few, very aggressively vocal, people do see it that way.

    I hope Mr Gove is proud of his assertions - I wonder if these people choose their doctor or mechanic by finding someone who knows nothing at all about medicine or cars? Sadly I suspect not - natural selection won't be allowed to operate quite so swiftly.

    1. bigot
      noun: bigot; plural noun: bigots

      a person who is intolerant towards those holding different opinions

  3. Yes I am a Mr Angry and I hate paying 5p cause I come from Yorkshire! So I do use alternative bags. But I also hate the fact that some charities will not sell my wildlife educational children's books giving excuse that 'they don't have room on the shelf'. They do fill the shelves with books that do not have any thing to do with nature and no educational value like total fiction but know they are best sellers and money comes first! So the question has to be what purpose the money given to the RSPB and likes if they are not really interested in allowing children to get into nature! Just another job for a 'pyramid' organisation!

  4. Interesting blog entry Janice, thankyou.
    It made me think about the advertising or Logo on the bags that are still used though. Instead of this, how about getting a Sea Life Centre or other experienced body to create a design that gets across the reason why there is a charge on carrier bags. Perhaps not as gory as cigarette packaging but as instantly informative as possible.

  5. Thanks for this humorously serious blog, Janice.
    As a part-time grumpy old git and contemporary of Mr A., I need every reminder that I belong to the most privileged generation since and until forever. Next time you see him, please give him that message from me.
    But stand back first.
    And I hope you'll write again.

  6. For a VAT registered retailer (surely nearly all?) they charge 4.17 pence, the rest goes to HMRC. So the retailers are lying/being disengenuous/ignorant when they say the 5p goes to 'a charity'.

  7. I should add that charging for a single use bag is only compulsory if the company has the equivalent of 250 full time employees.

  8. So the money from the bag charge has benefitted wildlife charities.
    Then you complain that some people are buying the plastic bags instead of bags for life.
    I understand that the idea is to reduce the number of plastic bags ending up in the wrong place but surely it would be better if Waterstones stopped stocking the 5p bags and just sold the bags for life instead?
    Cake eating...

    1. Yes.

      I read somewhere that if the shops kept the 5p themselves customers, knowing this, would not pay for them - hence there would be fewer in circulation, which is surely the point, as Andy says.

  9. For some people every small measure to persuade us to protect the environment is tantamount to overthrowing the Bill of Rights but the bag charge is eminently sensible. We have all seen 'witches britches' fluttering from the trees and bags floating like weird jellyfish in rivers and lakes as well as innumerable videos of turtles and other wildlife hopelessly enmeshed in our plastic detritus and anything to reduce these blights is to be welcomed. The bag charge has substantially reduced the number of throwaway plastic bags issued and that must in turn reduce the number that find their way into the wider environment.
    It is only part of the battle though and we also need to change the attitude that leads so many people to heedlessly chuck their trash from the car window. A glance at the roadside verge - especially near junctions on major roads - reveals that an awful lot of people don't care at all about the impact of their rubbish on the environment and we need somehow to change that too.

    1. The problem with clearing plastic bags from road junctions is that there will no longer be anything to cover up the discarded bottles of urine that truckers have been using to piss in. Filthy devils they are.

  10. I'm not a middle class white male, nor even English, but I'll admit that when they introdced the bag charge up here I was agin it. Mainly because I'm living down to the Scottish stereotype of being tight with money, but I'll admit that I was utterly wrong. There has been a drastic reduction of litter since they brought in the charge. I know part of it is the changes to the way that plastic bags are made, but it used to be the case that after a gale the trees were festooned in plastic bags and guttering stuffed with them. It has been a long time since I saw a plastic bag in a tree, and drains, guttering and verges are no longer blocked with the damn things.

    Plus, and this might be the clincher for me, by making me forswear a plastic carrier bag to get my fish supper home in favour of a thicker canvas carrier, I no longer have to put up with cauld chips.

  11. I have been trying to avoid buying anything made of plastic in the last couple of years. But it's quite difficult. Tried to buy a small wooden comb. Shop assistants looked blank. Eventually had to buy online. Same for toothbrushes.
    Although we can use fabric bags for shopping, if you buy loose fruit or veg the supermarkets only have clear plastic bags to put them in. I try to use mine more than once but still.
    I have bought a toy made from recycled plastic milk bottles for my grandson but found it was made in America! Quite challenging to be a sustainable consumer really.

    1. As I recall Simon King telling us at his recent Birdfair talk we have the power through the pound in our pockets, it's consumer power through purchase choice that will cause change. If we all leave the surplus packaging particularly plastic at the till and explain why then unnecessary producers will begin to get the message?

      I still use my Grandmothers crocheted bags along with a supply of freebie project cotton bags or jute variations. All it needs is practice remembering them and you can generally get at least one in your coat pocket / handbag etc.

      I'm not averse to the charity aspect but I do detest non-essential use of plastic and the abysmal failure to recycle more of the darn stuff.

  12. I'm not sure all who pay for a bag do so because they're not bothered about getting another bag to put into circulation often I get caught out by impulse purchase and don't have a bag handy.
    What I want to know is why shop chains don't introduce a more friendly alternative to the current plastic bag.
    However I want paat a supermarket distribution centre today and was shocked at the sheer number of plastic items caught 8n the hedge surrounding the distribution centre, given most were accompanied by the shop's logo it wasn't hard to figure out where it came from, for the record Morrisons at Burton Latimer (go and have a look Mark if you're passing) and when you see that you realise why people get angry at 5p. Firstly you do the right thing then realise why bother and it's the wrong people paying for it, after all how does Morrisons not get fined, I did for dropping a cigarette butt

  13. The whole schtick is as obnoxious as paying for a discharge consent. How does it make it OK to pollute or litter provided that you pay for it and support a good cause?

    There is a clear case here for vicarious liability. Make it illegal to sell anonymous bags and clobber the retailer for clean-up if the branded bag ends up anywhere at all. That should nail it once and for all.

    I keep a full set of those big tough bags in the Jamjar - then I always have the opposition's big tough bags to take into the supermarket so's I can plonk 'em on the checkout. I keep meaning to paint out the first "E" in "Every Little Helps".

  14. Great blog Janice.

    Even if it wasn't environmentally harmful, which it clearly is, the single use plastic carrier bag is such an appallingly wasteful concept as to defy all logic. Even the Daily Mail for goodness sake ran a campaign against them.

    I have been trying to avoid using the wretched things for years and admonishing myself for my unpreparedness, staggering home or to the car with purchases piled awkwardly and then finding I don't have a hand free to reach for my keys, (#firstworldproblems).

    I think the way the law has been implemented in England may be less effective than other parts of the UK. I'm sure when the law had been passed in Wales but not yet in England you simply couldn't get a placcy bag in a large supermarket. In England at the self service checkout you're still presented with the serried ranks of carrier bags tempting convenience and an honesty box style invitation to declare that you've paid for one. And the quantity of plastic packaging on the shelves is still mind boggling.

    Despite that I think the reduction in plastic bags since the law came in has been impressive and very much to be welcomed. Now to stop all these cardboard coffee cups and plastic lids, and these silly little plastic bottles of water we all now apparently need to take everywhere with us, even though 20 years ago we could manage perfectly well drinking from a beaker filled from the tap at our destination (or better still going to the pub and having a pint of beer).

    PS Those of you mentioning a "Mr Angry" are clearly too young to remember 1980s Steve Wright in the Afternoon ("I'm so angry, I could throw the phone down!")

  15. Few points albeit a little late.
    If more people went out and cleared rubbish from the roads and lanes, they would realise that the 5p charge has indeed reduced the amount of bags thrown away greatly.
    Give something away free and people don't value it.

    Does anyone remember in the 70s the brown paper bags given away by Safeways? Completely recyclable. Not bad for an American company.

    Lastly, two guys to Google.
    First is a young Dutch guy by the wonderful name of Boyan Slat. Invented a way of cleaning the seas of plastic and prototype is testing now in the North Sea.

    Second, a guy named Wayne Dixon is walking the coast of Britain collecting plastic and giving talks on same in primary schools on route.
    He is also promoting 'one a day'. Simply, if each of us picked up one piece of litter a day, it would soon disappear. The idiots who drop it really are in the minority.

    Do you tut when you see, it or pick it up?

  16. How much would it cost to phase them out in 5 years and manufacture thicker versions of biodegradable bags? My local store has these for 5p and recycled ones for free. The bio ones are fine for most light goods but just not strong enough. Jute bags are good until they get wet but can be recycled. The plastic issue will not be solved by putting up the price from 5p a bag to 10p, 15p etc. Something much more radical is needed

  17. Bring back the string bag! I bought one after the Wales ban came in and it's just the job (and I love the way it reminds me of my old gran, who was never without one when I was a child, circa 1086).
    The point about the bag tax is that the Welsh government wasn't deterred by the corporate lobby, who said it would cost jobs/be unworkable/end civilisation as we know it, etc. It was imposed on business, and worked.
    Now it's time for something similar to nudge people away from wastefulness on other fronts. My vote would be for plastic bottles first, quickly followed by take-out coffee cups.

    1. If Wales had string, let alone bags, in 1086 that would really be A Thing.

      But I do agree. I loved the way my Gran's string bag smelt of Earth and Onions, and could expand to the size of the Universe if something was on a Special Offer.


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