We are destroying our planet. It’s an idea with which we all ought to be painfully familiar. It may sit uncomfortably with our lavish western religion of consumerism, but it’s something we’ve all got to get used to. If we’re actually going to do something about the environmental disaster that we all of us in our hearts know is coming, then this mandates changes. Some will be more drastic than others, and some must necessarily hurt. What society really needs is a solution that, while meaningful, impinges on our lives as little as possible: a plastic bag tax.
Before the reactionary-minded nanny-state-haters among you balk, let me give you a few statistics. Last year, an estimated 13 billion plastic carrier bags were given away to shoppers in the UK, 217 plastic bags for every English citizen. Worldwide, the figure is closer to 500 billion. Though these bags are called disposable, that is precisely what they are not. Instead, each bag will take around 1,000 years to degrade. They remain as unsightly blots on our landscape, an unhappy reminder of our sheer apathy towards the well-being of our planet.
Consider also how plastic bags are made. Most plastic bags are made from high density polyethylene, produced from ever-precious crude oil. Most of these bags are made in south-east Asia, and by the time they reach merry old England, they will have travelled over 8,000 miles, with a massive carbon footprint to boot.
We are all guilty in this matter. We all know that we should recycle that empty wine bottle, reuse that carrier bag, turn off that light switch; but we don’t. We need a persistent nudge in the right direction. As far as plastic bags go, the Irish government has the right idea. In 2001 they introduced a plastic bag tax. Before the levy was introduced Ireland consumed 1.2 billion plastic bags, or 316 per person. After a year, plastic bag consumption had fallen by a massive 90%, saving 18,000,000 litres of oil in the process. These figures speak for themselves.
At last, our government is catching up, with Gordon Brown last week warning supermarkets that if they don’t cut down on plastic bags, he would force a change. My question to Gordon is: why wait?
Supermarkets are monolithic organisations, reluctant to change. They fear that a charge on plastic bags would send their customers scurrying away to their competitors. The fairest way to force change would be to mandate a universal charge in every supermarket, thus levelling the playing field. A reduction in plastic bag usage isn’t going to save the planet, but it would be a step in the right direction.
‘Every little helps’ they say. Well, let’s start with our addiction to plastic bags.