The 5p plastic bag charge: green policy worth the inconvenience?


Yes: With the damaging impact of plastic bags on our environment, it is time to challenge the deeply ingrained habits of our throw-away society. 

The life cycle of the plastic bag is a magnificent thing – starting life among the sheltered shop tills of your local supermarket, migrating from house to street, and finally ending at the landfill or ocean where it will forever remain.

New Scottish legislation now stands to impede this impressive pilgrimage. Having begun on October 20, 2014 a minimum 5p charge on single-use carrier bags is now implemented in all Scottish stores and will likely slow the stampede of plastic bags into landfills and seagulls’ stomachs. This change has been met by a flood of objections from shoppers, finding themselves faced with another expense at the checkout.

Realistically, the plastic bag charge amounts to quite a significant inconvenience in a world that presents endless opportunities to give into the enticing practicality of this modern-day pollutant.

The move has caused quite a stir in St Andrews, as students, outraged at the new expense, fear for the well-being of their penny collections carefully hoarded for the next night out. But as the exceedingly bright and intellectually capable students that we undoubtedly are, equipped with a sliver of environmental consciousness, we should be able to think realistically about the impact of our wasteful habits. In reality, 5p is actually quite a bargain.

Once upon a time, the arrival of the plastic bag served as a major improvement to a conventional shopping experience regularly frustrated by disassembling wicker and hessian baskets and bags. All of a sudden, all anyone had to do was pop all their purchases into the new plastic bag kindly offered to them at the till and wander happily home.

But now, with the hugely damaging impact of plastic bags on our environment, it is time to challenge the deeply ingrained habits of our throw-away society. Richard Lochhead sees this new legislation as an opportunity to “take action…  [and] work to tackle Scotland’s litter problem” of 750 million single-carrier bags per year.

After their short domestic lifespan of a mere 20 minutes cradling your groceries, these bags become permanent litter that threaten human health as well as the life of any number of animal species. Marine life is particularly at risk – 60% to 80% of all debris in the ocean is composed of plastic pollutants in which animals often become entangled or mistake for food.

Following on the heels of similar legislation in Wales, Northern Ireland, and most recently England, the new levy is projected to trigger a significant decrease in single-use carrier bag consumption. In Wales, the introduction of similar legislation in 2011 saw a drop in bag issuance by approximately 70%. And as any budding economist can surely confirm, as the demand for plastic bags drops eventually, so will the production.

Additionally, the proceeds from the charge provide another opportunity to correct years of consumption ignorance. According to Zero Waste Scotland, the organization which is managing the implementation of the new regulations, the proceeds from the charge belong to the retailer, but shops are being “strongly encouraged” to donate the extra profit to “good causes in Scotland, particularly ones that benefit the environment.”

Although this arrangement is in no way guaranteed, Superdry, Marks & Spencer, the Co-operative Group and Tesco have already pledged to do so. So we can hope that a significant proportion of the £5 million in expected extra profit will be donated to charity.

While it might appear to be a burdensome imposition, forcing us poor students to find creative ways to balance three cans of soup and a carton of eggs in one arm all the way home, the inconvenience of a 5p charge can easily be overcome by bringing a reusable bag when shopping. Just as those poor shoppers elsewhere in Britain have managed to adjust to the harsh reality of reusing their own bags, St Andrew students will quickly learn how to cope. With reusable bags at the ready, we can once again happily wander home with both our groceries and a clearer conscience.

No: Your carrier bag is a drop in the heavily polluted ocean. If anything, it’s probably the last thing you should be feeling guilty about with regards to your weekly shop. 

The Scottish government has just introduced a 5p charge on all plastic bags; and as bizarre as this may sound, I’m actually against it. It just doesn’t make sense to me, even as an environmentalist and, quite frankly, if I may take off my self-righteous green halo for a moment and think of the individual before the environment, it has the potential to be a major nuisance.

Imagine the worst case scenario. You go to the shops for your groceries with a really tight budget, and, as you shop, you carefully add up the cost of everything you’re intending to buy and walk to the checkout with a spring in your step, feeling smug that you’ve been a savvy enough shopper to have economised so well.

However, you’ve forgotten to bring a bag. You have 4p left. Do you put something back? None of those vegetables can go; you’ve planned your meals obsessively for the next few days and need every single one. The washing-up liquid? Nope. It’s your turn to buy and your flatmate’s dishes are sitting piled up beside the sink. And that wine is absolutely not going back, not after the hours spent slaving away on that monstrous essay.

You’re sweating and starting to blush as you awkwardly fumble about for another penny, so to pre-vent yet more tutting from the queue of irritated customers forming behind you. You decide there’s only one thing for it; you’ll just have to carry your things home without a bag.  Vegetables clutched to your chest with trembling arms, wine and washing up liquid in either hand, “this’ll do!” you say to yourself through gritted teeth. Unfortunately, it’s raining; it takes about ten minutes to walk home so you imagine it’ll be fine. You don’t envisage the catastrophic scene about to occur; the cardboard of the egg box begins to disintegrate, eggs fall onto the pavement which you then slip on, dropping the wine and landing with most of your weight on the bottle of washing-up liquid, leading to a jet of lemon freshness firing onto the street. Having salvaged what you can of your groceries, you eventually arrive home to a laughing flatmate, have to  put all of the clothes in the washing machine and then storm off in a huff to shower, cursing the Scottish government’s plastic bag charge.

Now the environmental cost of one less carrier bag has been exchanged for that of the litter you left on the street, the electricity used to run your washing machine, the resources used to create the detergent to wash your clothes, the soap in your shower and the gas burned to heat the water for it. Most tragically of all though, you lost your bottle of wine.

Hypothetical scenarios aside, I’d say that to be perfectly honest, there are more pressing concerns to worry about. Take a look at that imaginary basket of groceries I described; if you were to have enough money to do so and you lived in a place where alternatives were available, you could have chosen to be a more ethical consumer, shopping in an organic wholefoods co-operative or a small independent greengrocer as opposed to a supermarket. Unfortunately, this is not an option open to the vast majority of St Andrews inhabitants; supermarkets have, by and large killed off local business here and we are now left with the business model and products they offer.

There are so many other things to consider with shopping than the bag used to carry your groceries home. We should be thinking about how the goods were produced, by whom and how far away. How much energy went into their production, transportation and packaging? What kind of ethics does the business you shopped in have? Your carrier bag is a drop in a heavily polluted ocean in comparison.

If anything, it’s probably the last thing you should be feeling guilty about with regards to your weekly shop. According to the BBC, Tesco, the UK’s biggest supermarket chain, wasted 30,000 tonnes of food in the first six months of 2013 alone. I can’t help but feel that the onus should not be on the consumer, with the limited power they have, to make small and insignificant changes, but on powerful big businesses to change their practices – something this measure has done absolutely nothing to address.



  1. well-written article!over the years, i have lost count of the number of carrier plastic-bags i have found on the local beaches round here-hopefully the 5pence charge mAY make those who drop them carelessly think agine.i suspect we need a higher charge to make that happen…oNLY disadvantage will be that they were so helpful to put other beach-garbage in!the problem is of course-as you say-not only plastic carriers..Along with the other issues mentioned, tis time to outlaw those other plastic bags and the new trend in dOUBLE_WRAPPING things like avocadoes which have perfectly good covers of their own…THank you for high-lighting this!


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