In October 2015, Britain ended free single-use plastic bags at the supermarket, bringing in a charge of 5p. The charge succeeded in reducing the number of bags thrown away, and so campaigners are lining up the next target – disposable coffee cups perhaps, or plastic bottles. As the pressure grows around those things, it’s worth casting an eye back over the story to see what we can learn.
It took quite a long time to get that law through. The early calls for a ban came in 2007, when environmental issues were high on the agenda. The Climate Change Act was being prepared, and the Labour government took the opportunity to bundle in a handful of other environmental measures. An addenda to the bill, Schedule 6, lays the legislative groundwork for regional governments to introduce a plastic bag charge. There were no plans to actually do this at the time, and there were hopes that it could be done voluntarily. Prime Minister Gordon Brown promised to bring in a charge if the retailers didn’t do it independently. A couple of them did, such as Marks & Spencer. Most didn’t, but Brown’s threat was muted by rounds of studies and consultations, and then vanished altogether when the government changed.
The Daily Mail, whose influence on this issue has been considerable, kept up its Banish the Bag campaign. Environment and waste groups kept calling for it, led by Surfers Against Sewage, Keep Britain Tidy and Friends of the Earth. A growing number of other countries were introducing charges or bans, so there was mounting evidence that it worked, and ever more case studies to learn from. The supermarkets were broadly in favour – it was better for the government to demand an end to free bags than for them all to move independently and risk customer inconvenience. Surveys showed the majority of people approved of the idea. There was no reason not to move ahead.
On the other side however, the packaging lobby didn’t want it. The Taxpayer’s Alliance disapproved and ran protests and petitions against it. It was the Alliance that popularised the idea that it was a ‘bag tax‘, when in fact the government doesn’t get the 5p charge. (Retailers can do what they like with it, though they are invited to give it to charity.) Under the coalition government, the Lib Dems argued for it. Conservative colleagues with an aversion to red tape pushed back – people like Jacob Rees-Mogg, who mocked the whole idea because “the aim ought always to be to help people to lead their lives as free from state intervention as possible”. Over on the continent, Britain followed its usual stick-in-the-mud strategy and led the opposition to an EU wide ban.
But the legislation was there for those that wanted it. Wales moved first, acting in 2011. Then Northern Ireland, bringing its rules in line with its southern neighbour, which was the first country to ban free bags back in 2002. Scotland banned them in 2014 and finally the measure made it onto the Queen’s speech and then the statute books in 2015. Whitehall’s version was riddled with exceptions and loopholes, but it was finally done.
After all that foot-dragging, it worked exactly as expected. Plastic bag use was projected to fall by 80% and it did. So that’s a victory, although it’s extraordinary that it took eight years to enact a small change that almost everyone seemed to agree was a good idea. Such is British politics.
There’s a growing campaign around plastic bottle deposits at the moment. I won’t detail where it’s got to right now, but it looks like another convoluted and drawn out journey into law. Seasoned campaigners will know this stuff already, but for those of us looking on from the outside and hoping for quicker results, what can we learn from the bag charge?
- Someone always loses, even on common sense and well proven environmental measures. Those people can be surprisingly powerful. Companies who supply plastic bags to supermarkets stood to lose millions, and understandably mounted a considerable defence.
- We might think that a solution is obvious, but opposition to environmental measures can be very creative. All kinds of arguments were marshaled against the bag charge, calling on various research reports and think tanks to support them. The IEA fretted that plastic bags would lower sales and harm businesses. Others argued that there would be an increase in shop-lifting, or that incinerators would be able to generate less electricity. There will be always be trade-offs, but when a government is predisposed not to act, any negative aspects can be good excuses to do nothing. Campaigns need to be aware of trade-offs and acknowledge them. They also give us clues about where the holes in the legislation might be when it comes.
- Framing is important. Many people still refer to the ‘plastic bag tax’, which was a deliberate framing move by the Plastic Bag Consortium and the Taxpayer’s Alliance. People don’t like taxes. Neither do they like things to be ‘banned’. The languages of taxes and bans were readily deployed against the charge, and this needs to be called out and corrected, especially when it the phrases are picked up by journalists.
- The regions can and will move faster than the national government – Scotland is already implementing a bottle and can deposit scheme. Focusing on regional campaigns is a key part of the strategy. Those of us in England don’t have a regional government of our own (yet), but we can still support campaigns in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Each regional initiative builds the case for wider action.
- Making the issue political is really unhelpful. The plastic bag scheme was a Labour idea and then a Lib Dem policy. As soon as it is associated with one party, many MPs feel duty bound to obstruct it on principle. Working across parties and finding champions in different sectors can help.
- Finally, patience will be required. And truth be told, rushing something through could backfire. It’s not always as simple as it looks, and a bottle deposit scheme is a bit more complicated than the plastic bag charge.
I’m confident that we’ll get a bottle deposit eventually. If you want to do your bit for it right now, Greenpeace have a petition here. Sign the one from Surfers Against Sewage too. Join in with beach clean-ups and local litter-picking initiatives, publicise them in local press, and drop in mentions of the bottle deposit scheme. To all those plastic bottles in hedgerows and gutters – we’re coming for you. Slowly.