White pollution and shopping rage

Likened to O'Leary's surcharges on Ryanair, rising pressure for retailers to charge for plastic bags is causing dispute among shoppers.

With a proposal to ban the bags heating up the debate RT asks UK shoppers their views.

Plastic shopping bags and the so-called “white pollution” they apparently soak into the environment, has been the subject of debate for the best part of this decade. Whilst “the war on white pollution” seems to be raging throughout many developed and developing nations, the Welsh Assembly's recent proposal to place a ban on the manufacturing of disposable plastic bags has sparked debate to whether something so radical is needed in the fight to curb carbon emissions. And would the consistency of a complete outlaw be actually welcomed by consumers who are becoming more and more disgruntled by surprise charges for shopping bags that keep sprouting up in different shops and supermarkets?

Meticulously working out the items in her shopping trolley to the exact penny, Janice Roberts was surprised when the checkout assistant of the local supermarket informed her that her weekly shopping bill was nine pence more than she had calculated. When Mrs Roberts questioned the accuracy of the bill, the young supermarket worker informed her that the surplus “nine pence” was for the three plastic bags Mrs Roberts had already put her shopping in, which “as from today” they were charging for. As a matter of principal the 50-year-old factory worker from Cheshire emptied the bags and battled home with her shopping bulging from her pockets and under her arms.

Whilst today's economic woes are forcing people to shop to a tighter budget, the growing pressure retailers are under to charge consumers for plastic bags is dividing both experts and the public on the “logic” behind this expanding phenomenon. While some hail the trend as a “necessary advancement in environmental awareness”, many, like Mrs Roberts, are begrudging to pay for what has been for years a free entity – especially at a time when many people are economically vulnerable.

While the charging of plastic bags may be slowly escalating through stores and shops in Great Britain as a means of achieving a “greener” existence by encouraging recycling, just over a year ago, China went a step further and placed a ban on plastic bags being produced and forbid bags from being provided in supermarkets. Similar steps have been seen in India, Australia, South Africa and more recently Mexico City, and a recent report carried out by China Chain Store and Franchise Association, revealed that since plastic bags were banned in China just over a year ago it has saved the country the equivalent of 1.6 million tonnes in oil.

Whilst the “environmentally savvier” UK and US have yet to implement such a bold and radical step, the Welsh assembly have recently announced plans to not only put tax on all plastic bags but are also considering prohibiting the distribution of plastic bags in shops. Jane Davidson, the Welsh environment minister told The Guardian that many shoppers were, despite a string of measures implemented by retailers, “failing to embrace the environmental message” by reusing their shopping bags.

The Welsh Assembly's' proposed ban is being snubbed by many for the lack of any significant impact the eradication of plastic bags would have on the environment. James Lovelock is a climate scientist and is of the opinion that concentrating efforts solely on eradicating plastic bags will be to the detriment of more serious environmental issues.

“Patting ourselves on the back about how few plastic bags we now use allows us to ignore far more pressing environmental issues such as say, climate change, overpopulation, rapid species extinction, and the depletion of resources such as fresh water. Today's war on plastic bags is definitely worth fighting, but not if it is at the expense of these other concerns,” Lovelock told The Guardian.

Projects to fight the “white pollution” the frivolous use of plastic bags cause, have been met with a string of criticisms. According to the results of recent research the “plastax” scheme Ireland introduced in 2002, whereby a 15 cent tax was placed on each plastic bag, did lead to a 90 percent drop in the number of bags being used. However, the cost hike also led to a 400 percent increase in the number of bin liners being bought.

By encouraging the use of disposable paper bags, schemes aimed at alleviating the publics reliance on plastic bags are achieving their core purpose. But according to an independent lifecycle analysis expert assisted by Laura Degallaix, the “manufacture of paper bags consumes three times more water and emits about 80 percent more greenhouse gases than the production of plastic bags.”

Inconsistent and “surprise” charges for plastic shopping bags that are on the increase on the British high street, are causing mixed feelings amongst shoppers in the UK. Whilst some are enthusiastic about being encouraged to recycle bags and willing to cooperate, others remain somewhat miffed at having “another” new cost to worry about. Research carried out by RT in a supermarket in Cheshire revealed that different demographic groups are fairly consistent in their opinions about paying for plastic carrier bags. The survey also uncovered that the groups of people on tighter budgets, like students and pensioners, are more inclined to adhere with the scheme through a reluctance to pay for bags bred by poverty.

Joe and Sandy Willis are pensioners in the UK who are a little peeved at being charged for shopping bags. Like Janice Roberts, the Willis's are tired of frequently being surprised when they are asked for money for plastic shopping bags. The crunch time for Mr Willis was when he was charged five pence recently for a disposable bag in a charity shop. Mr Willis said:

“Charging people for bags is reflective of today's “penny pinching” society. It is like O'Leary charging you to go to the toilet on Ryanair. I have heard plastic bags have little significance on the environment so therefore charging for them is just another way to make money out of shoppers. And when a charity shop starts charging for them…!”

Somewhat predictably people with a greater disposable income are less begrudging and more willing to pay for their carrier bags and therefore less likely to recycle.

34-year-old Rebecca Evans, a teacher from Cheshire, remains relatively indifferent to being charged for shopping bags:

“I did notice that Marks & Spencer started charging for their bags over a year ago and since then it seems to have caught on. Tesco and Sainsbury's have got it right by making “bags for life” available but also providing plastic bags for free and therefore giving the consumer the choice. But, hey, we're only talking pennies and if it helps the environment…” said the teacher.

According to the environmental site Treehugger.com, a representative of British supermarkets called the move to set a mandatory fee for plastic bags as a “steamroller to crack a walnut” and admitted that many environmentalists are more concerned about the over-packaging of food. Perhaps governments should concentrate on harmonizing policies concerning the distribution of shopping bags. Whilst the war on white pollution may battle on, at least this would stamp out any confusion and unwanted hidden costs for consumers.

Gabrielle Pickard for RT

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