5 May 2007
In Ireland and Bangladesh, India, Italy and Australia, Taiwan and South Africa, the sky must be falling - these are some of the places that have imposed outright bans or tax on plastic bags. Now, the small Devon town of Modbury has joined the 'revolution'. In one full swoop plastic bag use has been cut by up to 97% - Government and the supermarket giants must marvel at the audacity of such action.
Defra and British retailers have come up with an agreement to cut the use of plastic bags by a modest 25%. How this is achieved is down to individual businesses and recent weeks have seen a number of tentative schemes from the supermarket giants.
Hardly a revolution in supermarket shopping but I was intrigued to see how Sainsbury's were going to translate this sexy sound bite into action.
On 27th April, they declared a one-day embargo on throwaway plastic bags. Freeing the world of plastic bags is all very well but what do shoppers carry their goods home in? Our French neighbours more familiar with revolutions are often obliged to sort this one out themselves. But Sainsbury’s were taking no risks with British customers - anarchy in the aisles was avoided for the princely sum of £700,000.
How? Well, you can't get more convenient than a bag – so a bag it was. And come to think of it plastic makes good shopping bags. Yes, it may sound just a tad insane to have a plastic bag free day by giving everyone plastic bags but that is just what Sainsbury's did and nobody so much as raised an eyebrow.
This dramatic, but tokenistic gesture, is hardly going to change the world – rather it may confuse people when Sainsbury's continue to give throwaway bags for the remaining 364 days.
Those still caught up in this revolutionary fervour will point out that the radical bit is that the bags were both 'reusable' and 'recycled' and available to everyone free of the usual 10p charge.
They are reusable because they are thicker and will last longer. Does that mean that they will last longer than the estimated 500 to 1000 years in the environment and break down into even more toxic scraps to seep into soil, water and be ingested by wildlife? Fewer thick plastic bags or more thin ones – we still end up with the problem of plastic in the environment.
This is all before we reach the horror of recycling plastic. While Sainsbury's may gain brownie points from the recycled label on these bags, but scratch the surface to find a process that is highly toxic, expensive and difficult. It is such an unattractive proposition that most of the western world dump used plastic bags back in Asia and China to be recycled. Here, they end up in poisonous heaps blighting towns and villages - overwhelmed by the quantity of plastic some areas resort to incineration, risking the health of people and animals.
While the supermarket giants talk of 'revolution' - the retailers of Modbury quietly got on with banning all plastic from their shops and declaring Modbury "the first plastic bag free town in the UK".
The 43 traders of Modbury are not revolutionaries. They are ordinary business people who felt morally compelled to stop giving plastic bags after watching a wildlife film by local girl Rebecca Hoskins showing the devastation caused to marine life by plastic in the sea.
It is not sound bites that change behaviour but honest information - plastic is devastating to human and animal health. It is toxic in the environment, manufacturing, transportation and disposal contributes to climate change, it is made from oil and it strikes me as an appalling affront to send soldiers into danger and risk civilian lives for a commodity we are going to casually throw away. And you just can't get rid of it – it accumulates in the environment making the sea as Rebecca said "like a trash can".
Norwich, has not thrown up a Rebecca Hoskins, but it does have its very own Bag Ladies who you might come across serenading shoppers into using alternatives to plastic bags - such as jute, organic cotton, and wonderful locally made baskets. And like Modbury and many parts of the world, and without a drop of spilled blood, they would like Norwich to become a plastic bag free city – with that in mind, they have launched a competition to design a logo for a non-plastic bag for Norwich. Entries can be dropped in the post box in the Forum lobby or emailed to email@example.com.