Plastic Bags

Britain's Plastic Bag Fee Is Producing a Huge Spike in the Consumption of Thicker, 'Reusable' Plastic Bags

The law of unintended consequences rears its ugly head.

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The results of plastic bag bans and restrictions are frequently disappointing, and occasionally counter-productive. Take the United Kingdom, where a country-wide bag fee is encouraging consumers to switch from single-use bags to thicker, reusable bags that use more plastic.

Last Thursday, Greenpeace and the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), a non-profit, released a report on the plastic consumption of British grocery stores that found they were actually using more plastic even as customers switch from using thin, disposable plastic bags to thicker reusable "bags for life."

The report found that use of these "bags for life" increased from 960 million in 2018 to 1.5 billion in 2019. That's a big single-year increase and well above the 439 million reusable plastic "bags for life" dispensed by the seven largest British grocery stores in 2014, according to a Waste and Resources Action Program (WRAP) study.

The U.K. imposed a mandatory 5-pence fee in 2015 on all plastic bags given out by retailers in the country in hopes of reducing plastic use.

"It is clear from this data that many people are simply swapping 'single-use' plastic bags for these plastic bags for 'life'," reads the Greenpeace/EIA report. "The impact of this simple substitution is a major concern, given the significantly higher plastic content of bags for life."

Plastic bag regulations have produced this unintended consequence before. A University of Sydney study of local bag bans in California found that while they got rid of single-use plastic bags, they encouraged customers to buy thicker garbage bags as substitutes.

Plastic consumption still fell in California, but not by as much as bag banners anticipated.

That appears to be true in the U.K. as well. According to the Greenpeace study, all bags used by the grocery stores surveyed (including both single-use and reusable bags) equaled 48,000 tons in 2019. According to the WRAP study, the seven largest grocery stores used 68,000 tons of reusable and single-use plastic bags in 2014, the year before the country's bag fee went into effect.

To be clear, these studies are not apples-to-apples comparisons. The per-bag weights used by WRAP (6.8 grams for single-use bags, 24 grams for reusable ones) are different than those used by the Greenpeace study (4.2 grams for single-use bags, 30 grams for reusable ones). On the other hand, the Greenpeace study includes bag use figures from more grocery stores, which would have the effect of increasing the number of bags counted.

Regardless, consumers' dastardly habit of changing their behavior in response to the country's bag fee is still undercutting the goal of environmentalists.

To that end, the Greenpeace/EIA study recommends either hiking fees on "bags for life" to 70 pence (about $1), or banning them entirely, in order to get people to finally remember to bring their own bags to the grocery store.

"When we go shopping, we should remember our bags like we remember our phones," Fiona Nicholls, one of the report's authors, said to The New York Times.

An alternative would be to stop trying to micromanage people's behavior. While the world's oceans do indeed contain an alarming amount of plastic waste, little of that comes from the U.K. or other developed nations that have effective waste management systems. According to one study, the U.K. was responsible for about one-tenth of one percent of marine plastic waste entering the world's oceans in 2010. The vast bulk of plastic waste in the developed world is deposited in landfills or (occasionally) recycled.

That's in contrast to countries in Africa and especially East Asia, where growing plastic consumption has not been matched by better waste collection, leading to an explosion in the amount of plastic waste coming from these countries.

Even if environmentalists in the U.K., or rich countries more broadly, eliminate plastic use completely, it will have little effect on the overall problem of global plastic pollution. Successfully banning plastic bags, either the disposable kind or the "for life" kind, won't save the oceans, but they will punish shoppers.

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  1. bags for life are often used just once so better to go back to single use bags that were often used at least twice. once for carrying groceries and again for carrying trash. Bags for life often get used just once for trash only

    1. Those bags are funky after just one use – no fucking way I’d use them again. I just throw them away. The “old” plastic grocery sacks are ideal for picking up dog shit.

      1. I can vouch for this. I have a cabinet packed with them and I use them to empty the cat box. Don’t know what I’d do without them. I’d probably put the cat to sleep.

        1. I support your “put the cat to sleep” policy and wish to subscribe to your newsletter.

  2. “It is clear from this data that many people are simply swapping ‘single-use’ plastic bags for these plastic bags for ‘life’,” reads the Greenpeace/EIA report.

    It’s your bear trap, and you still manage to put your foot in it.

  3. Well duh! We had the same result here in California.

    1. Leftists think that if they just pass a law then no behaviors will actually change and they will get their imaginary results. Usually the resulting behaviors are counter to the policy’s intended results. In this case, use of more plastic.

      Dammit, if I have to pay a 10 cent fee for a bag, I want the thick plastic bag, not the cheap ass paper bag I thought we got rid of twenty years ago.

      1. >>Leftists think

        nope.

      2. It’s not results the greens want, it is a combination of virtue signaling and controlling the lives of others. If they really want to protect the environment, they would look at the numbers and figure out that using wind and solar is ultimately harmful to the health of the planet.


  4. Even if environmentalists in the U.K., or rich countries more broadly, eliminate plastic use completely, it will have little effect on the overall problem of global plastic pollution.

    Haha, we should go to war with China and East Asia, possibly India as well, in order to save the Earth.

    This seems to be what environmentalists actually believe.

    They’re just far too cowardly to travel to those places and force the change themselves. Can’t say I blame them, given how China treats anyone that crosses them.

    What is curious is that environmentalists are frequently socialists or communists, yet their preferred government types seem to be the most directly against their environmental agenda. It’s almost as if they’re idiots who advocate for their own elimination.

    1. Once upon the time the Green movement was mostly capitalist. When the movement started they evaluated the economic systems and came to the conclusion that capitalist societies were not only cleaner, but capitalism provided more incentives to ‘nudge’ consumers towards green solutions.

      Today being Green is virtually synonymous with Socialism. Why? Because on the left there is one and only one economic model that will be tolerated: outright Socialism.

      1. Indeed, they are predominately watermelons these days who use environmentalism as a cudgel to belabor capitalism while ignoring that their preferred government types are orders of magnitude worse on the subject and responsible for virtually all of the problems they claim to care about.

        1. At least some of them are becoming more honest about it…

          Democratic New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s chief of staff, Saikat Chakrabarti The Green New Deal “wasn’t originally a climate thing at all … we really think of it as a how-do-you-change-the-entire-economy thing.”

          (OTTMAR EDENHOFER, UN IPCC OFFICIAL): Basically it’s a big mistake to discuss climate policy separately from the major themes of globalization. The climate summit in Cancun at the end of the month is not a climate conference, but one of the largest economic conferences since the Second World War… First of all, developed countries have basically expropriated the atmosphere of the world community. But one must say clearly that we redistribute de facto the world’s wealth by climate policy…One has to free oneself from the illusion that international climate policy is environmental policy. This has almost nothing to do with environmental policy anymore, with problems such as deforestation or the ozone hole.

          Emma Brindal, a climate justice campaigner coordinator for Friends of the Earth: “A climate change response must have at its heart a redistribution of wealth and resources.”

          For some others, it’s about the money or power, and they’ll use the “science”, real or imagined, to that end (but still tossing in a few SWJ buzzwords):

          Monika Kopacz, atmospheric scientist: “It is no secret that a lot of climate-change research is subject to opinion, that climate models sometimes disagree even on the signs of the future changes (e.g. drier vs. wetter future climate). The problem is, only sensational exaggeration makes the kind of story that will get politicians’ — and readers’ — attention. So, yes, climate scientists might exaggerate, but in today’s world, this is the only way to assure any political action and thus more federal financing to reduce the scientific uncertainty.”

          Former U.S. Senator Timothy Wirth (D-CO), then representing the Clinton-Gore administration as U.S undersecretary of state for global issues, addressing the same Rio Climate Summit audience, agreed: “We have got to ride the global warming issue. Even if the theory of global warming is wrong, we will be doing the right thing in terms of economic policy and environmental policy.”

          Christine Stewart, former Canadian Environment Minister: “No matter if the science is all phoney, there are collateral environmental benefits…. climate change [provides] the greatest chance to bring about justice and equality in the world.”

    2. we should go to war with China and East Asia, possibly India as well, in order to save the Earth.

      I fully anticipate this under a progressive administration. If “saving the Earth” is *the* highest principle, what better casus belli ?

      1. We have always been at war with East Asia.

        1. Enjoy your extra ration of Victory Gin.

          1. Your allotment is being increased from one a week to three in a month.

            Enjoy comrade.

      2. This would require politicians to actually believe the shit they say, which is extremely doubtful. What they want is to control the populace of the 1st world, they couldn’t give less of a fuck about what happens oversea’s or in other countries. (This applies to the EU just as much as the US.)

        Now those peons in the movements? Well, they might actually believe what they say but fortunately it seems no one is listening to them. Some people are just using them as props, and they’re little more than that to anyone in charge. In fact, they’d probably be the first against the wall in a future one-world communist regime.

        1. How dare you.

    3. I for one would contribute to a (one-way) travel fund for all the eco-warriors so they can take their message straight to the cultures that actually pollute more. A true win-win: they might actually make a measurable difference and they would stop annoying me.

    4. The US owes China 1.1 trillion dollars.

      1. If you owe the bank a billion, the bank owns you.
        If you owe the bank a trillion, you own the bank.

  5. “An alternative would be to stop trying to micromanage people’s behavior.”

    Then WTF would all the nanny types and megalomaniacs do with their lives? Not to mention all the academics, media, and NGOs that support the nanny state industrial complex.

  6. Just like Starbucks strapless kids requiring more plastic than the old lids and straws.

  7. The environment can sense our good intentions and that gives it the power to heal.

  8. Hmmm? Strapless kids.

  9. I say paper bags made from hemp.

  10. Banning plastic bags is a simple, low-hanging, low-stress way for rich Western countries to signal green virtue and “do something.”

    It’s a lot harder to confront China and other Asian and African countries who are doing 90 percent of the plastic polluting.

    Basically, it’s green cowardice

  11. “According to one study, the U.K. was responsible for about one-tenth of one percent of marine plastic waste entering the world’s oceans in 2010. The vast bulk of plastic waste in the developed world is deposited in landfills or (occasionally) recycled.

    That’s in contrast to countries in Africa and especially East Asia, where growing plastic consumption has not been matched by better waste collection, leading to an explosion in the amount of plastic waste coming from these countries.”

    Realize that population of Africa is going to *double* in the next 30 years. Imagine how much trash we’ll have then.

    1. Not only that, but how much of that 10% from the UK is plastic bags, or consumer waste of any kind? Most of the plastic in the ocean is discarded gear from commercial fishing boats

      They are putting all their effort toward the smallest impact

  12. When a business is failing, it makes changes as needed to achieve success.

    But when government fails, that proves government is a failure. Libertarians do not afford the same allowances to government as they do to business. Government must get it right the first time, if they don’t, that proves the whole endeavor a failure.

  13. My experience. Nothing much has changed in my household except that I pay a ten cent fee for bag requested (paper or plastic). Once I get the bags home the use patterns are the same; I reuse around the house and garage some bags and toss the remainder in the recycle can. The ‘stronger, tougher’ bags are actually have less useful. And now we are finding out that twice the resources are used to make these bags. Oh what a tangled web we weave . . .

  14. Part of the problem is that the problem was not attached to the solution used. The problem is plastic waste that ends up in places we don’t want it – like the ocean. That plastic is mostly from sources other than grocery bags in developed economies where there is typically readily used & accessible waste disposal. The data I have seen does not point to the major problem in ocean waste being grocery bags in developed economies. But maybe the Brits had some other data.
    At any rate – more “consumption” is not a bad thing. More disposal that ends up in places we don’t want it (like the oceans) is the bad outcome. So the idea that measuring plastic consumption in any way reflects the success or failure of this program is a non sequitur.

  15. paper bags is the best solution for plastic bags…

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