How the law of unintended consequences hits the plastic carrier bag tax
An unforeseen factor behind the supermarket plastic bag charge means that people are buying more single-use plastic bags.
It’s the kind of thing that makes you slap your forehead with frustration, one of the UK’s top waste and recycling companies says, and it’s all because of a thrifty habit we still haven’t shaken.
What everybody who supported the plastic bag charge levied on supermarket customers forgot is that millions of people use their supermarket carrier bags as bin bags, BusinessWaste.co.uk says.
“And as one study has found,” BusinessWaste.co.uk spokesperson Mark Hall says, “the cut in supermarket bags is now being offset by people buying more plastic rubbish sacks.”
Wait… that can’t be right, can it?
Here are the numbers:
According to a study published in a scientific journal earlier this year, the author concluded that in the US state of California, where single-use plastic supermarket bags are banned and shoppers have to pay ten cents for a paper sack:
• Some 20,000 tons of plastic supermarket bags were eliminated, but…
• This was offset by Californians buying an additional 6,000 tons of rubbish bags and refuse sacks
The logical conclusion from this is that nearly a third of people were using their shopping bags as bin bags, and they needed something else to hold their rubbish.
“This is the law of unintended consequences in action,” says BusinessWaste.co.uk ‘s Mark Hall, “and while there’s still a big decrease in the amount of plastic being used, it’s something nobody even thought would happen”.
That’s America. But what about the UK?
Mark Hall: “Of course, we had to find out if this is happening in the UK as well.”
And yes it is.
• BusinessWaste.co.uk carried out its own survey of 1500 households and found that:
• 470 households were buying extra rubbish bags instead of using supermarket plastic bags
• All put it down to the fact that supermarket carrier bags “cost money” and they don’t want to waste them by throwing them in the bin.
In fact, delving deeper showed that people tended to buy smaller rubbish bags, because – to quote one householder:
“Shop bags were just the right size for our bedroom and bathroom bins, and you just can’t get them for free anymore.”
So, as we’ve found out, the unintended consequence of the well-intentioned and enormously successful plastic bag charge in the United Kingdom is that it has undone a bit of household thriftiness for millions of people.
“And there’s no way that the charge is going to change because of that,” Hall says.
“Our top tip to people now belatedly in the market for refuse bags is to buy the ones with the highest rate of recycled materials, or bags that are biodegradable.
“And recycle more of your waste so you use fewer rubbish bags.”
OK, how about gaming the system? I can still get free bags?
And, as BusinessWaste.co.uk found out, there’s always people with a system to get out of paying 10p or more for a plastic bag.
It doesn’t always seem to work, though.
“We just use the free plastic bags that come with takeaway food,” one chap told us. “That does mean having take-out three or four times a week, and to be honest that’s not really worth it. Also, I’ve just gone up a jean size.”
While another householder with an eye for a deal said: “I bought a case of plastic bags from a wholesaler for pennies each.” Asked how many they have left as part of this extraordinary money-saving scheme: “Ten thousand.”
So, we know a gentleman in the English Home Counties – who wishes to remain anonymous for obvious reasons – with up to ten thousand plastic bags in his garage. We hope the rats and mice don’t get to them first.
But our message is this: Re use, recycle more, waste less. That’s how you win at this game.
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