Bin those plastic bags
Now don’t you come all libertarian with me. Don’t you try to pretend there is something anti-Tory about banning plastic bags.
I think I qualify as the single most rabidly freedom-loving columnist on this paper. I have sounded the alarm against bans on smoking, snacking, smacking, hunting and making jokes about religion; and I have inveighed against just about every example of nanny-statery you can think of, from booster seats for 11-year-olds to the new labels on wine bottles warning you that the contents can make you drunk.
Yet when I saw that London councils had unanimously decided, with cross-party approval, to do away with the plastic bags given out free in the capital’s shops and supermarkets, I am afraid that my heart sang.
I felt a pagan oneness with nature, the green instinct to preserve the planet that is at the core of every human being.
It is especially now, when the leaves are off the trees, that you can see the way these bags insult the landscape. There they are on the topmost boughs, taunting us with their inextricability. They clog drains. They disfigure the ditches.
They require heaven knows how much fossil fuel to produce, and the people of London use 1.6 billion of them every year. They use them for an average of 20 minutes per bag.
The bag is then discarded and takes about 400 years to biodegrade, and the result is that we are slowly sprinkling the planet with the crinkly detritus of our consumption.
According to marine biologists, there were hardly any plastic bags to be found in oceans in the 1970s and 1980s; they are now cropping up everywhere from Spitzbergen at 78 degrees north to the Falkland Islands at 51 degrees south.
Gobbets of slowly decaying plastic bag are getting into the diets of all sorts of marine life, with poisonous consequences, and it is hugely to the credit of London’s councils – chaired by Merrick Cockell – that they have taken a lead that will now be no doubt imitated across the planet.
Of course the British retailers are protesting, because they are worried that the great British shopper will be inconvenienced.
They fear that if we are all issued with nothing but paper bags, or if we bring our own bags to the shop, then we will waddle out without buying that extra packet of custard creams, with disastrous effects on their profit margins.
All I can say is that people who make this dire prediction cannot possibly have been to an American supermarket. The Americans use paper bags for their groceries.
They are far less practical than our plastic bags. They leak, they tear, they have no handles; and yet if you study the American supermarket shopper from behind, it is clear that these paper bags are no inhibition on their consumption of groceries.
And no, I don’t believe that the London Tories who devised this ban are being remotely untrue to the spirit of their party.
Who stopped the burning of the filthy coal that produced the pea-soupers? Who stopped children being sent up chimneys? Who stopped raw sewage being pumped into the Thames? Tories, every time.
I like the plastic bag ban because it is the genuine will of local politicians, and if the Government means anything by its enthusiasm for localism, it will give proper effect to the measure in the next London local government Bill.
I hope the councils will take advantage of their success to go further, because if there is one thing worse than the plastic bags, it is the hideous white pox on the London streets.
I mean the gum. Every day across this country hundreds of thousands of people are stealthily taking out a piece of soggy supermasticated gum; and instead of putting it neatly behind their ear until they can find a bin, they are checking that the coast is clear, and then they are flicking it into the street.
This disgusting object is then carried from sole to sole until it eventually lies flat. First it is white, like a piece of mutant lichen, and then it goes black as dirt is ground into it. Then the poor councils have to spend a fortune to remove it.
The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea has hired two full-time gum-busters, at a cost of £135,000, and if it costs 3p to manufacture a stick of gum, it takes 10p to remove it; and anyone looking at the pavements can see that the problem is beginning to defeat us.
There are 300,000 gum splodges in Oxford Street alone, and it is an almost medieval labour to remove them, involving fearsome pink chemicals and steam-blasters.
It doesn’t have to be this way. In the last 18 months a company attached to Bristol University has come up with a breakthrough, a hydrophilic agent that makes chewing gum far more easily soluble in water – and yet which has no effect on chewiness or flavour release, or any other quality for which gum is valued.
The gum companies (mainly Wrigleys and Cadbury-Schweppes) know exactly which ingredient I mean, and they have been entreated to add it to their recipes. They won’t, of course, because it detracts from the bottom line.
Well, if the London councils can get together and crack down on supermarket bags, isn’t it time they went further, and used their collective might to rid the streets of the great gum plague?
We cannot hope to stop the people of Britain from chewing gum, and it would be quite wrong to impose some tax, especially after the smoking ban. Nor can we realistically hope to intercept the nation’s myriad gum-flickers in the act.
But we could oblige the gum companies to use an alternative recipe that doesn’t disfigure the streets.
London councils have shown the way with plastic bags, and the manufacturers should take heed. It is no use claiming that gum ingredients are not the business of local government: councils have to clear up the mess, just as they have to spend a fortune getting bags from trees.
Above all, they have to charge their residents to do so. Any politician who cares about value for money would now be getting the gum companies round the table and confronting them with their responsibilities.