Plastic Bag Ban

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.

30 thoughts on “Plastic Bag Ban”

  1. Can we get rid of plastic drinks bottles too? And stick a mandatory deposit on ring-pull cans? Sorry if I sound a bit Germanic here, but perhaps making a fix of caffeine & glucose/fructose syrup a few pence more expensive may have a positive impact on the nations health.

  2. Bags, particularly the flimsy ones, don’t use much of the world’s oil By most estimates paper bags which use trees, are worse. However Boris is quite right about the way they disfigure streets, aren’t biodegradable & choke animals. He is right that this is not a freedom issue – it is an issue of trying to make the costs of using the product, which is currently bourne by the community be reflected in the cost.

    (This is actually the same argument as was used to sell the smoking ban – the dofference is that the claims that passive smoking kills were lies.)

  3. At least disposable paper bags biodegrade and don’t block drains. The worst is when they are all over the countryside. In Bangladesh the situation is so bad that they are stopping the water sinking into the ground.

  4. While we’re getting rid of things, how about people that throw their trash on the ground. Maybe we could ban litterers?

    Seriously, I’m with you on this. Plastic bags are a blight and I’m happy to see them go.

  5. By laws older than the world, old as the maker’s first plan of the world, we have to arrive there, where we turn attentive of polluting the environment…….. if not, there will be no living, all dying, all as good as dead !!!

  6. Be careful before supporting any ban, Boris. And be very, very careful if it is driven by the urge to “take a lead that will now be no doubt imitated across the planet”.

    The rush to be first is partly what has caused shameful distortions of science in the field of global warming and secondhand smoke as intellectually lazy governments, headline-hungry scientists and ambitious politicians scramble to claim the moral high ground.

    Having said that, this ain’t a bad idea. Plastic detritus is a scourge of town and country.

    But wouldn’t it be better to tax plastic bags, making supermarkets pass on the cost? Most customers would think seriously before adding an unnecessary £1 to their bill. That kind of tax I can forgive – a simple deterrent with sound and obvious benefits.

    If you want one so badly, pay for it. Shoppers are less likely to discard bags carelessly if they have a value.

    Market forces, old boy.

  7. Further thought: I shop increasingly often at cheap-and-cheerful Aldi.

    No bags unless you pay for them. Cash or debit card only. No customers clogging up the checkout with a wad of silly vouchers. No confused old ladies debating the contents of their Christmas Savings Club with a clueless school-leaver.

    A lucky-dip of unfamiliar products and brands at knockdown prices. No money-off barcodes that refuse to be scanned.

    And best of all, no: “Would you like any help wiv your packin todayee foryoo atorll?”

    Marvellous.

  8. Mr. Johnson,

    I absolutely agree with you on the plastic bags. It’s true that to produce paper bags, we need trees and of course it’s desirable to restrict the number of paper bags being given away as much as we can. I’d want to charge for paper bags too. You see, I really don’t see the problem in bringing your own bag. You’d have to be prepared to go shopping, sure. Is that a big deal? I think not.

    As for gum, I hate the stuff. It sticks to my mouth almost as badly as it does on the streets, and it’s almost as disgusting too. A hydrophillic agent would be a very good thing to make the cleaning easier. However, I don’t see why people who throw their trash in the streets should be pardoned so easily. It’s a very simple rule: we do NOT dump our trash in the streets, therefore we have bins.

  9. I certainly believe that we should curb the use of plastic bags to a minimum. I’m just worried that we might do that without a viable alternative. For a great solution lets look at the S.German way; simply iconic stitched cream cotton bags with handles from the same material (could be made by prisoners even). Price (say) a pound so that when you have six of the things you re-use them and buy a new one every now and then when needed. Plastic bags; charge 25p for’em so that they are there for an “impulse” buy but too dear to buy on a regular basis. Simple! Finding a useful design icon is the key. (And lets do the same for bins, telephone boxes etc). BANNING is silly. I’m surprised at you Boris. I’d have thought that stealing dodgy party politics to gain popularity was beneath you!

  10. If councils are spending tens of thousands of pounds on removing gum (inefficiently), surely half of the budget would be better spent subsidising manufacturers’ costs for introduction of the hydrophillic agent. It would be sensible to apply a strongarm approach to the manufacturers, who by their inaction are the cause of massive costs to the taxpayers, and phase this funding out over two to three years.

    This would surely improve the efficiency of the street cleaners, the looks of our pathways and perhaps with fewer splodges on the sidewalk, people will think twice about carelessly discarding their gum. Otherwise we should resort to meeting in the Wrigley’s executive carpark and paving the way to their vehicles with a sea of semi chewed Juicy Fruit!

    May I suggest some kind of reward scheme for returning once used plastic bags. Every house has a stash of said bags somewhere under the sink that grows steadily in size, threatening to spill out at any opportunity. Let the supermarkets pay 5 pence for every returned bag, before you know it people will be travelling to the shops with placcy bags tucked under arms and will arrive at checkout ready to ‘bag up’ themselves. People will go to great lengths to save a penny here or there, just look at the lengths we go to to collect receipts entitling us to (at most) a pound off fuel.

  11. I am surprised the Labour Party hasn’t already banned plastic bags in case we all asphyxiate ourselves at the thought of another ten years of rehashed, pre-heated, boil-in-the-bag “New” Labour.

    Let’s face it, with Tony Blair’s Happy Valley grinning behind us, there’s every reason to follow Gordon Brown’s lead and frown ourselves into kingdom come.

    The only crumb of solace is that having banned the purchase of sufficient pain-killers to do the job, it would seem that there are limits after all to the nanny state. But that just may be wishful thinking and yet another example of this government’s chronic inefficiency.

    This suggestion will do nothing to keep those of us in the non global warming recesses of the Tory Party in the Party, but it just might make the global warming fatasists who have hi-jacked it quiet for sufficient time to propose something else for the nation’s ills, before we end it all…

  12. Shame on you Mr Johnson – joining the “ban this, ban that” brigade.

    Personally, I rarely see plastic bags littering the streets – and I live in London. These are indispensible for me as they have many uses – especially as refuse bags. By all means arrange for them to be made biodegradable and even make a charge, but please, stop all this banning, banning, banning nonsense. Not all of us can afford housekeepers to do our shopping, and not all of us have cars.

    Luckily, I understand that our council may introduce a charge for the bags; good, I can handle that.

  13. Of course plastic bags should be biodegradeable. There are many companies that can and do make them, also biodegradeable disposable nappies, nappy bags, dustbin bags etc.Banning petrol based plastic bags is an excellent idea, but shops could easlily provide biodegradeable plastc bags at a small charge, and cotton reuseable ones (unbleached, organic cotton would of course be best!). Government can encourege fast introduction of these with the one incentive that gets us all moving fast – money! Tax incentives, subsidies, and a ban on standard plastic not just for shopping bags but bin bags etc so a ban on shopping bags doesn’t lead to a rise in demand for black bags and bin bags as a result (see Ireland for consequences of isolated ban on plastic shopping bags). Any ban should be part of an integrated to policy to reduce reliance on ordinary plastic (including water bottles)by a particular date.

  14. Either we accept we are a crumbled, defeated nation where clever Prime Ministers can fool the un-educated majority (on whom he repeatedly told us there were millions being spent) into the most desperate and ridiculous Middle-East invasion, into levels of state surveillance the Soviets only dreamed of and into an even more short-term political landscape…
    OR we look at ourselves straight, stand back from the canvas and accept ourselves for who we are. (A la Margaret Thatcher?)

    As custodians of a country which once influenced the whole globe, we are sitting on a culture most people can only dream of. The Chinese are already building British-style houses for the newly-rich. Japanese swarm the Lake-District in February. Americans drool round London, Edinburgh, Oxford and Stratford. The Swiss can be seen in the far reaches of the North-West of Scotland, the Germans all over the Isle of Man and all the roads which lead there.

    Instead of declining into a desperate economy reliant on tourism – a form of foreign voyeurism – we are still just about in a position to show the world what is possible, even in a country which has been through the intensive roller-coaster ride the UK has experienced in the last couple of centuries.

    Since we have led the world for two or three hundred years in the recent past, why shouldn’t we continue this noble tradition? It may not be of a swashbuckling, raping, conquering form but it would have the same effect – we would improve the world’s knowledge and ability to further their abilites to the planet’s benefit.

    Leave the Americans (and S Hawking) to hoping for a New World on Mars or some Moon of Jupiter in the medium term, while they continue to damage Mother Earth’s careful nurture to the point she may well expel us all prematurely. The chances are that it will be organically-sustained Indians who sort us out in the middle-distance, either building and programming the super-computers which propel us to safety in another Solar System or calm Man’s behaviour on our own planet to the extent it remains habitable.

    As the Italians are to Europe, Britain has the possibilty of being to the whole World – but with organisation, coordination, honesty and diplomacy. The USA’s domination at the moment has meant our own language has become the lingua franca around the globe – we couldn’t (Iraq excepted) be in a better position to break free from our strange post WW2 years, our cosying-up to the US and our failure to use Socialism to benefit the common man.

    Rather like the once-violent, bloody and belligerent Swiss became the peace-loving, affluent, high-quality nation it is today (leading Orson Welles’ character in ‘The Third Man’ to make that ever-lasting quip about cuckoo clocks) Britain has the ability to do likewise. Even if it starts with plastic bags – and being offered good money for returning glass bottles.

  15. Boris – hello gorgeous! Good to see the PM has taken on board your plastic bag policy, now if you can just work on the rest of the governments shambolic administration we’d all be very grateful x

  16. The first paragraph sums up the dilemma for people like Boris: he loves to rubbish the “nanny state”, but feels if he dresses up in a drole way (tee hee, titter) he can get away with cherry-picking a few things he would like the state to intervene on.

  17. Boris writes a rather dull blog about it, farts, and slumps back in his chair.

    Ken is busy doing something about it.

  18. Dear Boris
    So – will you & the Tories repeal the smoking ban, the ban on hunting, the Terrorism (and other) oppressive acts, once in power? I doubt it. That’s the problem with the erosion of civil liberties: they’re irreversible. Once the politicos get in, however charming they appear, just you trying prising powers away from them. No wonder no one trusts the bastards any more.
    love,
    Paul

  19. I`m in agreement with you Boris as usual. Whilst banning plastic bags, can you get plastic CDS banned as well, that way Darling Brown will not be able to play and fast & loose with out details.In fact, can we ban Darling Brown, that would be the best idea!!!

  20. So – will you & the Tories repeal the smoking ban, the ban on hunting, the Terrorism (and other) oppressive acts, once in power? (Paul)

    That would be the ultimate challenge for a visionary party – a pledge to undo all those laws where the erosion of civil liberties can be shown to outweigh the gain. You say they are irreversible; they are not.

    I would start by allowing well-ventilated smoking rooms in pubs and clubs. Non-smokers and staff would not be troubled by them; youngsters would no longer be impressed by the cool sight of ‘smirters’ outside; and those ridiculous, energy-guzzling patio heaters could go. Everyone happy. It makes perfect sense.

    The blanket ban has done nothing that couldn’t have been achieved by a sensible compromise, apart from alienating a third of the population.

  21. Way ahead of Britain already written the smash hit movie of 2008 with green tones..CASHBACKpaper or plastic,.

    In my film the supermarket has either paper bags or light eco friendly plastic bags, like they do in the states.

    Have you change your bank details yet – talking about the CHildbenefit lost disc data fiasco?

  22. svengali:he loves to rubbish the “nanny state”, but feels if he dresses up in a drole way (tee hee, titter) he can get away with cherry-picking a few things he would like the state to intervene on.’

    What Boris wishes to practice is called democracy. The relation between desire to change and winning concession in a theory of rational action can give us some insights into his thoughts and intentions. Boris tends to make powerful impression on people in order to persuade them to be attentive of their environment. He is conducting an assessment on making his ideas plausible, far from forbidding he uses persuasion. He is advocating by giving lessons to negligent people to care about their environment – as we do.

  23. ‘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.’ Just to note, this has been done in South Africa for some years now.

  24. Before this blog closes for comments, I’d like to agree with PaulD. Yes, repeal the smoking ban – you’d get a third of this country’s votes. It’s a HUGE ‘minority’. (Bringing down the price of cigarettes should do the trick as well.)

    As for plastic bags – so the Nanny State is being replaced by the Domestic Gestapo!

    I like plastic bags. I use them over and over again. I prefer trees to paper bags. And have you ever tried to walk home with paper bags in the pouring rain and watch them disintegrate? It rains in this country – it rained throughout the summer for those who didn’t notice – and not everyone has a car.

    So I echo SeanL’s comments above – no more banning! I am getting so, so wary of the evangelists. They’re not creating a happier country.

    We need more FUN – less of the daily grind. Lower prices (for everything, definitely including homes), less bureaucracy, less drudgery and form-filling, and just more normal friendliness.

  25. Hi Crystal-Cobweb. A bit more fun, a bit less diktat. Quite agree. However, if the US can make brown paper shopping bags capable of holding their weekly shop (OK, in manageable sized bags), surely we can? They do hold up in the rain – honest. They even last a three mile walk in the rain and get used as pedal bin liners after that. (No, I’m not some two-homer – just an underpaid traveller.)

    Did you see that news item this morning when Declan Curry was valiantly trying to say that a plastic Christmas tree used for 20 years is as carbon-OK as a fresh tree? Someone must have VERY careful removal men, angelic children/dogs and really boring parties.

  26. Hi Gillian P (and with apologies for the delay in replying – it’s Christmas). I’ll tell you what. Let’s make a deal. If you agree to support the repeal of the smoking ban, then I’ll agree to the banning of plastic bags. Do you see? There’s got to be a compromise. People can’t be expected to give things up ad infinitum just because someone else gets an idea into their head. The smoking ban was a hysterical reaction to a lot of carefully-manipulated propaganda. There are many medics who aren’t convinced of the dangers of passive smoking but, of course, they would never, ever be published or asked to speak. In fact, they’d probably be too scared to say anything in the present climate that rules this free-speaking country of ours.

    As for the argument – if the Americans do it, then why don’t we – I’m afraid that doesn’t hold much water with me. The Americans are the worst offenders for carbon emissions and consistently avoid tackling the subject at every summit meeting possible. So they use paper bags – wow. That just seems a palliative measure to me, which looks good but won’t really have that much effect.

    If we are to imitate the Americans in any way, why not take some of their finer things? Like American Abstract Expressionism – brilliant painting and a damn sight better than the unwholesome crap that is being produced in England. Might even raise the falling standards in education.

    I don’t actually know about rain and paper bags. I have a car… but I CAN imagine the scenarios, I really can!

    If something HAS to be done – why not just do away with all the unnecessary packaging in supermarkets? That should get rid of plenty of plastic (and leave me with my beloved…sob…plastic bags).

    As for plastic Xmas trees: those are rejected on aesthetic grounds. I agree with you – totally boring.

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