My daughter rarely finds her dads jokes funny (hard to believe, I know) but she had to laugh about a year ago when we were out doing a bit of shopping and got to the checkout with about nine items including some loose bananas, a large pot of yoghurt and some quiche.
“Would you like a bag for that?” asked the shop assistant,
“No it’s alright,” I said, “I thought I’d just juggle the buggers across the car park.”
It seemed such a daft question at the time, but that was before last October when all large retailers were forced to start charging 5p for a plastic carrier bag. Now they always ask the question, and most of us seem to be saying no.
Since the plastic carrier bag charge came into force, it’s estimated that uptake in affected retailers has fallen by about 80% in England. And this estimate roughly mirrors the effect in Scotland, Wales and Ireland where similar policies have been in place for much longer. I’ll come back to this – and what I think is a far more interesting and wider implication in a moment – but first I want to look at the real effect of the levy.
On the face of it, it looks like an open and shut case. Plastic bags can take 1,000 years to degrade and so they create a litter issue. And then there’s the ecological impact. When seabirds, sea mammals or fish ingest plastic particles it can result in serious illness or death. But when you look a bit closer, things get a whole lot hazier.
Plastic bags are not a large component of the overall rubbish problem. It’s estimated that they account for less than 1% of all items of litter. So reducing usage by 80% (whilst welcome from a litter reduction perspective) isn’t going to have a perceivable effect on the overall problem. And while it’s obviously ‘better’ for sea life if it isn’t exposed to discarded plastic bags, the effect is impossible to quantify or calculate.
And there are several other sides to this coin.
Shoppers haven’t taken to juggling lessons; they’ve taken to using alternative methods of carrying their shopping instead. Re-useable cotton bags would need to be used 131 times compared to a regular plastic bag before they are better in terms of limiting global warming, according to the Environment Agency. That figure goes up to 173 times for the 40% of people who use their plastic bags as bin liners.
I know they’re called ‘bags for life’ but 173 uses is pushing it a bit, wouldn’t you agree? And if you do try to make the thing live up to its name, you’re going to want to keep it clean. Re-useable bags are a breeding ground for all manner of bacteria that can cause pretty unpleasant illnesses. Researchers in California found harmful bacteria in over half the bags tested and E Coli in 12%.
So it’s going to need cleaning. And that needs hot water and detergent, stuff that causes a greater use of resources and potential environmental damage than the plastic bags the cotton bags replace.
Maybe paper bags are the answer? Well not according to studies in the USA where they are more prevalent than the UK. A study in San Francisco found that using paper bags led to “greater landfill waste than plastic bags”, and a similar study in Austin Texas found that following a ban on plastic bags, shoppers started to throw out many more heavy duty reusable bags, resulting in increased landfill.
So the impact of charging for plastic bags is already looking questionable, and that’s before we’ve even considered the economic effects. In February 2016, Nelson Packaging in Lancashire announced that they would be closing with the loss of 40 jobs, citing the carrier bag charge as the chief cause. I doubt they will be the last firm to go under, or the last jobs to be lost, because of this. There’s even some evidence that shoppers are shifting away from retailers affected by the levy (those with over 250 employees) to online alternatives, with inevitable employment implications to follow.
The tax on plastic carrier bags seems to be a perfect policy for the government, but not particularly advantageous for the rest of us. While it gives the impression of doing something positive, the end result can be argued to be neutral at best.
But here’s what’s really interesting to me…
It’s been phenomenally ‘successful’ in the sense that imposing a 5p charge on something that was previously free has resulted in an 80% fall in demand. Just read that again, and digest it…charging a piddling 5p for something that was previously free has caused eight out of ten people who previously ‘bought’ to decide not to do so.
Now you might argue that these people are really responding to the environmental message rather than the economic cost, but I’m not sure that’s valid. We’ve been told for years that plastic bags were doing environmental damage and yet we continued to take them. It was only when we were told there was a charge, that we gave any thought to whether we really needed them or not.
Surely this is powerful information we can use to much greater effect than reducing the use of plastic carrier bags, which as we’ve already seen, is of questionable value anyway. Which brings me round to the NHS. I know – you didn’t see that coming!
Have you attempted to get an appointment with your GP lately? It can be very difficult in many practices, with non-urgent cases being offered appointments two and three weeks in advance. I don’t know about you, but I don’t ring a doctor for fun; I want to see a doctor now – not in 10 days time when I’ll have either got considerably better or worryingly worse. Complain and the receptionist will shrug her shoulders and blame the huge demand on the service. She has a point, but does it really have to be like this?
I fully appreciate you can’t tell everything (or indeed very much) just by looking at the people sitting in a doctors waiting room, but would you at least accept, based on your own experience, that there are some people who really don’t need to be there? They’ve turned up unnecessarily with very minor ailments, and they’ve turned up because it’s ‘free’.
It isn’t free of course. I read yesterday that the average cost of a GP’s appointment to the taxpayer is £57. Think about that for a moment. Demand is so high that you struggle to get an appointment, and every one of those people is costing the taxpayer £57. Now let me ask you this…
How much shorter do you think the queue would be if there was a small charge applied for each appointment, in the same way that there’s a small charge for a plastic carrier bag? If a 5p charge for something that was previously free causes 80% of people to question whether they really need it, what impact would a small charge have on the demand for doctors appointments? I’d be shocked if the immediate impact wasn’t at least a 15%-20% fall in demand for appointment – it could be a lot more – and that would surely free up the service for the people who really need it.
Such a policy would be a nightmare politically for anyone brave enough to give it a try, and there are any number of issues to iron out – the size of the charge and a system for ensuring that the genuinely ill aren’t discouraged from seeking help, for example. But in principle, I’m convinced it would work. And if it worked in the NHS, what about other psychologically free, but over-stretched resources? Which brings me to toll roads…well maybe another day.
For now, I’ll go and get my tin hat!
(As an aside, what you have here is a nice explanation of why many information based internet sites struggle to make money using a traditional business model. They started out offering their services for free, and once people have had something for free, they’re extremely reluctant to pay even a small amount of money for it.)