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You can take my plastic bag from my cold, dead hands

Today I visited the Click & Collect counter at Debenhams, a department store. This is an arrangement whereby one orders goods using a web site then visits the premises to collect them. “Sorry about the wait,” said the clerk when I reached the front of the queue. Later she asked if I wanted a bag in which to carry my purchase. “You have to pay 5p.” I did not have any change, and withdrew from my wallet a pristine £20 note. The Click & Collect counter must not be set up for cash payments, as the clerk looked slightly panicked but decided her job was to make me wait some more: “Could you join the queue over there to pay?”

At the front of that queue I declared, “I am to pay for this bag.” The look of confusion that was the reply made me wonder if, perhaps, the intention all along had been for me to shrug and walk away without paying. “You want to pay for that bag?” Yes, I did. The cashier slid the £20 back towards me and muttered something that I took to mean, “get out of here.” I thanked her and left.

The UK’s 5p “bag charge” is not a Pigou tax to cover the externality of disposing of the bag. Neither is it to raise money for charity. It is explicitly designed to change people’s behaviour. “We expect to see a significant reduction in the use of single-use plastic carrier bags as a direct result of the charge”, says the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, while looking sternly over the top of its spectacles, one imagines.

More than that, people who insist on continuing to use plastic bags are to be made to feel awkward and deviant. Like smokers, we are to be de-normalised.

The mechanics of buying groceries are tedious. I would prefer the transaction to go gracefully with the minimum of conscious thought. I do not want to be made to consider such philosophical questions as, “do you want a bag for life? We have to charge 5p for the other ones. You don’t? Oh well, I will try to use the minimum number of bags to save you money. What’s that? You don’t care? You want me to use the number of bags appropriate for secure and efficient carrying of the volume, mass and tessellation properties of the items you have purchased? What a strange customer you are.” I feel that social disapprobation every time.

A while ago, at a supermarket, I paid by credit card for my items before realising the cashier had not bagged them. “Can I have a bag?” Then I fumbled around for change until the customer behind me in the queue insisted on paying for me. I left haunted by the idea that he thought I had arranged this situation on purpose. When it happened again at a newsagent the other day, I insisted on paying even though the cashier offered to waive the fee. Partly to assure everyone in the vicinity that I was not a skinflint and partly because, like a feeble imitation of an Ayn Rand hero, I want to force Them to confront what They have wrought. Next time, to spread fear, uncertainty and doubt, and to make more miserable the lives of future shoppers, I might point out that they should be careful about waiving the charge as there are DEFRA agents in our midst, carrying out secret shopping operations. Yes, I will fight back!

I will continue to use single-use plastic bags for as long as I am able. Not just because I am too disorganised to plan my shopping jaunts in advance and ensure that I set out with the correct number of re-usable bags, but also as a service to you, dear readers, that you may from the safety of your laptops observe the abuse and ostracisation of a misfit; that you may know the nature of the state.

47 comments to You can take my plastic bag from my cold, dead hands

  • qet

    This was my favorite part of the government’s notice: “Once you’ve deducted reasonable costs, it’s expected that you’ll donate all proceeds to good causes, particularly environmental causes.”

  • Arthur Teacake

    What’s particularly infuriating is that retailers make a big point of saying the 5p doesn’t go to their profits, it goes to charity. And the charities concerned seem to be fake ones. Environmental charities. The evil bastards who originated this crap.

    I’d be perfectly happy for the retailer to profit by selling me a bag. But not to divert my money to funding my enemies.

  • Sam Duncan

    We’ve had the charge here in the Scottish People’s Republic for a couple of years now. I’ve always been torn between a reluctance to pay* for something that businesses used to – and surely would still like to – provide me as a courtesy and being, like you, buggered if The Authorities’ social engineering is about to change my behaviour. I still haven’t really decided one way or the other.

    *And pay massively over the odds for, too. Even Lidl, who have always run their own little behavioural change programme, only charged 3p.

  • Stonyground

    I would suspect that Lidl, being a bargain basement type of retailer, probably charged for bags to keep the price of everything else down, rater than change your behavior.

    I have been using re-useable bags for years now, I sort of bought the idea that throw away bags were wasteful. Some have suggested that you have to re-use bags more than forty times before they break even environment wise but I don’t really take such calculations seriously one way or the other. Carrying on with the re-useable bags is my way of keeping my money out of the hands of the green shirts. Anyway good luck with your campaign and I mean that in the honest way not the sarcastic way.

  • opsimath

    I recently bought a car kit for my grandson from a local toy-shop and was asked if I would like a bag. I told the assistant, ‘Not if I have to pay for it.’ His reply was that only companies that employ more than 250 employees are bound by this new law. The message seems clear enough; buy from smaller shops.

    Have a nice holiday, everyone.

  • Jerry

    Really ironic. so much so, it almost seems planned … hmmm.

    But the enviro-weirdos essentially made us STOP using plastic bags because we were, according to them, ‘killing all the trees’ and ‘we’re all gonna DIE ‘.
    Now, the plastic bags we were forced to start using are ‘bad for the environment’ ( isn’t EVERYTHING, especially the evil
    human species ! ) so we MUST convert to ‘reusable bags’.
    I shudder to think what’s coming after this current hurdle is firmly in place.

    NO bags at all ? ( ‘Put everything in your pockets, you don’t ‘need’ that much of whatever you’re buying anyway ! )

    Bags with built-in RFID.

    Bags that record your purchases ? ( don’t laugh – it can be done )

    I think I’ll join Mr. Fisher’s campaign in any way I can !!

  • Of course, the bags were never free… the cost of the bags – however many you took was built into the cost of your shopping…

    Given that some people took loadsabags – even double-bagging – you can be sure that if you were miserly with your bag taking you were losing out on the deal…

    And given that supermarkets haven’t reduced their prices since the 5p charge came in you are now paying twice for the fucking bag – only to have some of it given to the very same bastards that insisted on the charge in the first place…

    You really couldn’t make it up…

  • Greytop

    My local supermarket’s poorer customers (from the other side of the railway line, yes really) have a simple solution. They load up their trolley having bought their goods and walk out of the store and… keep walking. Until they get home. Then they abandon the trolleys on the street as it is of no interest to them what environmental damage a shopping trolley costs.

    For the supermarket they either have to pay someone to go round in a truck collecting them or stump up the hundred quid plus fora new one. But I suppose as the environment has been saved from the plastic bag menace it is a double plus good.

    By the way, I note the dividing line is 250 employees as the determining factor in the charge. Which means a corner shop near me (employees: old man and his wife, sometimes) that charges 5p per bag is latching on to another source of profit.

  • momo

    The less “1 use” bags I have the less bags I have for small trash cans, wet swim gear, and picking up dog pooh.

    I think I should be able to throw, with consequence to me, my un-bagged dog pooh at any council member that voted for this crap. After all they took a working recycle program and ruined it.

  • momo

    What’s particularly infuriating is that retailers make a big point of saying the 5p doesn’t go to their profits, it goes to charity.

    Why would I suspect that the charity they use is a charity I would like to use?

    As I pointed out to a fellow customer in line when they talked about how Paul Newman’s brands give their profits to charities, you have just outsourced your morality to Paul Newman.

  • Phil B

    I now live in New Zealand so this is of historic worth only.

    I used to use the plastic bags as rubbish bin liners. Now that I won’t be given them for free, I suppose that I’d have to buy rubbish bin plastic bags and put the rubbish in them instead …

    Yep – I can see how that massively reduces the number of plastic bags going to landfill.

    The “Something must be done! This is something. Let’s do it” train of thought ALWAYS results in this kind of stupidity.

  • Tanuki

    Knowing this bag-levy was coming in, for the last year or so I made a point of taking as many free bags as possible [stuffing 2 or 3 empty ones inside each bag as I filled it with shopping] when doing my supermarket shops, and now have a nice little cache of several thousand of the things in my shed.

    Given Dog’s defecatory-output, this will keep me (and him) supplied with poop-scoop-bags for the next 18 months or so.

    Meantime, I notice that shops/supermarkets can still provide free plastic bags for fresh items of food – as such I’m tempted to pick my tomatoes/potatoes/courgettes singly and put each one into a separate bag.

    The smart always work out how to game the system.

  • Myno

    As soon as our local bag ordinance came into existence, I ordered a big package of plastic grocery bags. I keep ’em in my vehicles, and take a couple with me into a store. I get some grief occasionally from a checkout person, but I just smile through it, fulfilling their expectations for a troglodyte who defies their Save the Turtles social engineering.

  • They abruptly stopped giving out plastic bags in France sometime this year, and a right pain in the arse it is. You can’t even buy the single use ones. I often find myself ducking into a shop on a whim on the way home, and without a bag I’m limited to what I can buy. I suppose I could carry around a string bag on the off chance I need to buy something, but in general I prefer not to be forced to reprise long gone and derided practices from the Soviet Union. Jeez.

    Also, as others have said, I found the plastic carrier bags useful. I now wish I’d kept more of them. What do you now use to wrap shoes before putting them in a suitcase?

  • I can’t help but think ‘bring your own bag’ is a goldmine for shoplifters too…

    Many, many years ago I was at a party which ran out of food… one of the guys offered to go to the supermarket an buy more and I went with him… We took our own bag..

    We walked around the store but didn’t buy anything – I couldn’t understand why. When we got back to the party the bag that he had taken was full of food… I was with him all the time but had no idea he was shoplifting… These days I walk around stores and see people putting stuff into their own bags… who knows…?

  • Julie near Chicago

    What Jerry Said (I think he means “made us START using plastic bags” to Save the Trees), what Tim N. Said, what almost all of us agree we were already doing: recycling the plastic bags for other uses, quite in line with the Recycle Program when you get down to it, yet done all off our own hook, prompted by common sense and a way to save wear & tear on the wallet and the nervous system.

    Of course we are also warned that we should launder our reusable bags after each shopping expedition. At least if we’re carrying any meat (etc.), dairy, or produce in them.

  • RRS

    Sticking to Rob Fisher’s point that the “purpose” of this charge (and dispositions of the proceeds) is to direct and determine human conduct; but uses the coercions of taxation, whose purpose is to provide revenues for the functions of governments, the issue lies amongst those that stem from continuing centralizes absolute sovereignty – here in Parliament.

    We have similar situations in places like Concord and Wellesley, MA. in the U.S.. But there is the offset to shop in an adjoining town, or elsewhere, for bottled water or plastic (quick) bags. The bags aren’t “free.” Like the famous lunch, they are in the price of the beer.

    Still, there seems to be this dream in “modern” Britain that homogeneity can be had by uniformity.

  • Lee Moore

    I can’t promise that it saves money, but I have developed a psychologically reassuring, all-purpose response to greeny crap, whenever I feel that it is threatening to disturb my inner calm – whether it’s plastic bags, BBC green propaganda on the TV, whatever. I nip out to the car and turn the engine on for an hour or so.

  • Alsadius

    That, and the entire idea that plastic bags are single-use is ludicrous. I keep a drawer for them – they’re great as garbage can liners, lunch bags, and general storage.

  • Paul Marks

    “Nudge” that is indeed what the bag tax is about – someone should “nudge” that “Libertarian Paternalist” oxymoron off the nearest cliff.

    But the till not set up for cash payment is more worrying.

    There is a massive drive for a “cashless economy”.

    This is order to help government control and get rid of the “Black Market” and so on.

    The old television show “1990” with its “Department of Public Control” has such a “cashless economy”.

    And Sweden (with the dream its elite has long had to be the first country to “achieve” totalitarianism via the “democractic process” father than Enabling Act or whatever) is in the lead.

    But I am sure that both the government and the government supported “financial sector” would love a “cashless economy” in Britain.

    They could then rob even more they do now.

    “But Paul, Bitcoin will save us”.

    Oh bleep.

  • Frederick Davies

    £20 to pay for a 5p bag; I like it! I have to try it one day in Sainsbury’s…


  • Runcie Balspune

    As others have stated, the life of a “single use” plastic bag in my household was to end up in a wastepaper bin after shopping duty, and as most of the contents of the bin would be recycled, it might stay there for two or three cleaning cycles, before eventually going to landfill.

    Now I’ve got a tidy collection of “Bag for Life” bags, each needing a lot more (x 100) plastic, and I’ll have to buy a bulk lot of cheap-o plastic bags for the wastepaper bins, which will probably only last one cycle, so more plastic waste.

    I noted Primark uses paper bags, which I heard had a bigger carbon footprint than single use plastic.

    Did anyone actually get round to scientifically and economically proving these bags were “bad”, the ones I read all showed the alternatives were worse? Sounds like another of those “let’s kill all the sparrows” moments from the Climate Change crew. The “powerful” icon of a plastic bag fluttering over the Kalahari for a million years, rather like the polar bear on a tiny ice floe, seems to be the main reason we have a ban.

  • By the way, it’ll be plastic water bottles next. The ban has already started in some US cities I believe, and will gain traction.

  • qmark

    Has anyone not seen South Parks wholesale destruction of Whole Foods Market and their ilk, in this seasons discussion of the idiocy of PC and other accoutrements….

  • Nicholas (Andy.royd) Gray

    Just don’t buy anything! That will stuff them up!
    I’ve recently been thinking that here, in Australia, we could have an entire parallel economy in the outback. Just come up with a 4WD-campavan with a solar-powered hydroponics trailer, and you might be independent of the state, for life! You might be like the gypsies, trading skills at get-togethers, or bartering outside the mainstream economy. Get water from rain, or desal along the coast with your solar panels. I don’t think it can be done now, but it might be a going concern in the future.

  • Oh, there are greenies who promote the idea of a “Buy Nothing Day”. They never expect the government to consume nothing for even a single day, however.

  • monster

    “Nudge” that is indeed what the bag tax is about – someone should “nudge” that “Libertarian Paternalist” oxymoron off the nearest cliff.

    lol – that has got to be a contender for ‘quote of the day’!

  • Rich Rostrom

    The fun part of this is that wherever single use bags have been banned, there has been a spike in food poisoning cases. “Reusable” bags accumulate dirt inside, including bacteria which contaminate food.

  • They started this nonsense in a neighborhood I lived in, and it was defeated because people would stand outside supermarkets giving customers their old plastic bags for a 1-cent “donation”. So the council sent in the Stasi because these people didn’t have “vendor licences”, whereupon people stopped donating to the various police benevolent societies, etc. and the cops stopped enforcing that piece of idiocy. At the next council meeting, the police chief (!) introduced a motion to overturn the ban because it was causing more trouble than it was worth. The measure was voted down, 9-0.

    Of course, the answer is to refuse to pay for the bags, period, and if the store gets sniffy about it, to walk away, leaving the groceries at the checkout register, unpaid-for. If enough people do this, the cost of re-stocking will become excessive, and the silliness will come to an end.

    Yes, another outcome of this is that stores will stop providing bags altogether (as they do in parts of Germany), whereupon people should refuse to pick up dog poo, but brush it into the gutter when no one is watching. There are so MANY ways to kick against the pricks…

  • Snag

    I wish for a bag to carry my groceries home. My supermarket of choice wishes to provide me with just such a bag, at no additional cost to myself. A ‘conservative’ government decrees that neither of us is allowed to engage in this hitherto lawful exchange, and that should the supermarket ignore this decree they will be liable to be fined tens of thousands of pounds.

    This is what passes for liberty in the United Kingdom in 2015.

  • Regional

    In Boganstan the Woolies free bags disintegrate with time.

  • Nicholas (Andy.royd) Gray

    Plastic bags should only be used to put over the heads of politicians, and then tightened, until any surviving sensible politicians finally see the light, but don’t want to walk into the light. Then we will be free to use our bags as we want.

  • andyinsdca

    Here in the DPRK (Kalifornia) the major grocery store chains all ganged up to get this through that way EVERYONE was paying for it, so now you pay for your bags no matter where you shop. Also, the union got a bone thrown to them to support the law. Crony capitalism at its finest!

  • Bruce

    The molecular-thickness, Chinese-sourced grey plastic bags here in Oz have a VERY short life if exposed to UV, something we have in abundance in the “Sunshine State”.

    HOWEVER, the “government / eco-nazi preferred” carrier bags are also made in CHINA, but from some dubious spun fibre that has even less structural integrity than a Hoxha era Albanian apartment block.

    Re-used, waxed cardboard, fruit boxes are a better bet; they also burn nicely when cardboard “fatigue” finally claims them.

    Traditional “string-bags” might make a comeback, maybe.

  • Snorri Godhi

    I have had to pay for plastic bags for over 15 years now, and never felt like it is a big deal, to be honest.
    The Scottish side of my personality has found a simple, economical solution: re-using single-use bags. I bring 2 plastic bags into the supermarket, double bagged, stuffed into my coat pocket (in summer, i carry the double-bag in the shopping basket). I believe it is perfectly hygienic, because the food never comes in contact with the bags: only the outer side of the packaging comes in contact with the bags, and i never let the outer side of packaging in contact with any food: who knows who touched it??
    Of course, sometime i forget to bring the bags and have to pay.
    After several trips, i re-use the inside bag, or both, one last time to carry empty beer bottles to recycling, to get back the deposit: a nuisance to which i have been used for even longer. I don’t like to have glass in the garbage, anyway: i carry glass to recycling even if there is no deposit.
    There was a period when i used old supermarket bags for the garbage, now i buy larger bags for that.
    Tim is right though: plastic bags are essential to carry shoes in suitcases.
    About plastic bottles: men should never drink from them, because it can mess up our hormones. Here, we have to pay a deposit for most plastic bottles anyway.

  • OldBob

    I’d be very interested to know the effect on recycling levels from this bag policy. We only ever used old free shopping bags to store recycling waste. Now that we have to pay for bags, everything just goes in the landfill bin.

  • simonjester2076

    On the point of “single-use” bags disintegrating with time: the ones we had in the UK did this too (as I found out when I left one in my coat pocket for too long).

    Note the past tense in the previous sentence; the 5p bags seem to be of a different composition (significantly more robust, for starters). I don’t know whether they will disintegrate quite so readily.

    So another of the consequences of this legislation may be to replace relatively eco-friendly bags with ones that don’t break down.

    someone should “nudge” that “Libertarian Paternalist” oxymoron off the nearest cliff

    If I could grab hold of the fucker I would, but he’s normally got a police bodyguard…

  • Rob Fisher (Surrey)

    Paul Marks: “But the till not set up for cash payment is more worrying.” — it’s okay, I have not yet encountered such a thing. It was a counter for collecting goods already paid for (I did not make that clear). I think if I had handed over a 5p coin it would have gone in a jar for the purpose. The problem was giving change from the note.

  • Andrew Duffin

    The 250-employee limit is not the limit at which they have to charge, it’s the limit they have to account for how many bags they purchase and what happens to the money. (account to whom I am not sure – no doubt some state agency has been set up to manage this: loads of pen-pushers all with nice offices, car allowances, assistants, laptops, and (naturally) gold-plated inflation-proof pensions paid for by us.)

    So your local corner shop still has to charge you 5p, but doesn’t have to do anything auditable with the revenue – I expect they just keep it, and good luck to them, it’s hard enough to make a living from retail these days.

  • llamas

    Kim du Toit wrote:

    ‘There are so MANY ways to kick against the pricks…’

    Damn straight. John R. has the answer, as he often does.:-)

    Back to the bags – they don’t have this idiocy round here.

    Regarding the ‘green-ness’ of grocery store bags, not a lot of people know that the standard single-use grocery-store bag is actually a triumph of materials engineering, providing an absolutely stunning strength-to-weight ratio, and much of it based on materials derived, not from oil, but from corn and natural gas. The amount of technology in that bag is just amazing, and all of it is what makes the bag both easily disposable and environmentally-quite-friendly. Do the experiment yourself – a single-use grocery bag will decompose in a few months if exposed to soil organisms.

    We bring a huge number of these bags into the house – I sometimes filch an extra handful when using the self-checkout, so sue me – but not one of them leaves the house unused. From garden truck, to chainsaw chains, to removing the oil filter from the Ducati, to shotshell hulls, recycling newspapers, shredder bags the uses are actually limitless. And (although we don’t do this) I’ll wager that 50% or more of these bags that are used in urban areas end up getting used for picking up dog poop. This is why surveys show that between 50% and 90% of ‘single-use’ plastic grocery bags get re-used at least once.

    And I thought we were supposed to re-use and recycle?

    If they ban them around here, or institute a tax, I’ll simply go online and buy a case of the things – at less than 1¢ each retail, they are a stone bargain – and we’ll go on like we do now. In truth, bans and taxes are nothing more than an additional burden on the poor, who can least afford a fancy ‘reusable’ bag (so often emblazoned with some trendy social cause or aspirational logo) and who are least-likely to have the facilities to sanitize re-usable bags.

    But, like so many things, these bag-bans and bag-taxes do serve a useful purpose, namely, as a barometer of political sense – if a person is in favour of them, you may be sure that that person is either a mindless ideologue, or an economic illiterate, or both, and adjust your opinions accordingly.



  • the other rob

    I tried to save the trees, I bought a plastic bag, the bottom fell out it was a piece of crap. Piece of crap!

    Neil Young, some time ago.

    Here in Texas, it’s still “Paper or plastic?” I don’t think that I’ve ever seen anybody answer “Paper, please”.

  • Watchman

    Of course, you could always use Ocado (with the added benefit of not having to leave your house – admittedly, doesn’t work if you just want to pick up a head of brocolli (just me that never has brocolli when I want it then?)).

    You see, they reasonably worked out that although they have to charge you for the plastic bags they bring your shopping in, this seemed a bit wrong. But as Ocado were already properly environmentally concerned (they recycle the bags they give you into more bags – presumably because this is economically a sensible move for them, as they kept doing in when going through their recent tought spell) this is not a huge problem. They charge 5p for the bag, but then buy them back from you at the next delivery for 5p (regardless of condition, so long as presumably not full of animal waste or something). And the really nice kicker – they buy back any other bags you add as well.

    So I suspect their accounts to whichever DEFRA committee get to assess these things will be fun – they’ve charged customers for the bags, and then repaid the money to customers in return for the bags. Not what the supposedly environmentally concerned types behind this would have wanted, but seems an elegant solution. And it means I can have my shopping delivered in bags at no longer-term cost to me (unless I choose to use the bag for something else). In effect, unlike the sell at 5p only model, Ocado have at least allowed a model where the bag had a price and economic utility that can be measured against that – even if the price in inelastic due to government interference. This is reassuring – if the pseudo-socialists of the green movement want to impose state controls, it is nice to see that in effect all they can manage is in effect to create a new market with pricing.

  • AKM

    If I remember this correctly the claim that plastic bags hurt the environment was based on a scientific paper that mentioned finding seabirds killed by plastic items such as fishing nets or lines. This became “oh-my-god, plastic is killing animals” and mutated into “plastic bags are hurting the environment” even though no one has ever found any particular environmental harm from plastic bags and even the harm from plastic fishing equipment wasn’t that serious an issue in the first place. Yet somehow the environmental “blob” keeps getting their bad ideas made into government policy.

  • Rob Fisher (Surrey)

    Regarding plastic killing animals, this article about the “Pacific garbage vortex” seems more measured than most: http://io9.gizmodo.com/5911969/lies-youve-been-told-about-the-pacific-garbage-patch

  • John in cheshire

    I shall avoid paying for bags for the primary reason that I object to others deciding which charities are to be the recipients of my money. If they have to give the money to a good cause, they can give it to me.

  • Richard Thomas

    Sam, possibly you could buy the plastic bags in bulk away from the store and only use them once. You’re still paying but it would be a lot less and you wouldn’t be subsidizing dodgy charities.

  • James Waterton

    In Western Australia we tried this circa-2005. Oh, you could still have your single-use plastic bag for a price, but you were encouraged to purchase for $2 a pop much sturdier green (of course) reusable bags with a thick plastic base which you’d put your groceries into, carry them home, put your groceries away and then put them back in the back of your car, ready for you to retrieve and take back into the supermarket at your next shop.

    Trouble was, most shoppers forgot to either put the bags back in the car, or bring them into the supermarket. So they’d buy more ‘green’ reusable bags. Result = considerably more refuse generated, as most no doubt well-meaning people ended up mostly using the reusable bags in the same way they did the single-use bags. Ah. Problem. Because (IIRC) it took the resources of 10 or more single use bags to make one reusable bag. Plus the single-use bags weren’t actually single-use for many, perhaps most – we used them as rubbish bags, which subsequently had to be purchased separately. It was realised the environmental case obviously didn’t stack up, so (quite uncommonly) common sense prevailed, the free and ubiquitous plastic bags reappeared and the ‘green’ reusable bags vanished from our checkout aisles.

    It could happen to you, too!