Lidl has shown that we could do much more to avoid waste on our shopping trips - and so has Rwanda, writes Jane Bradley
Scotland. We like to think we’re fairly progressive when it comes to environmental strategy and social issues.
Our climate change reduction targets have long been well ahead of the rest of the UK. We brought in the smoking ban years before our friends south of the border. And we introduced the plastic bag levy, if not before Wales and Northern Ireland, well in advance of England.
But while the 5p tax on single use plastic bags has reduced the use of the products hugely - with estimates from Zero Waste Scotland suggesting an 80 per cent reduction in the number of bags used within a year if the introduction of the ban in 2014 - it has taken an independent step by a German retailer to make us realise that we could still be doing more.
This week, discount chain Lidl said it will remove all plastic bags from its UK stores by July next year. The move will, the store claims, save an estimated 63 million plastic bags annually - the equivalent of 760 tons of plastic. Of course, it’s not like the store is saying it will never sell a bag to a customer who needs something in which to carry their goods. The bags it is talking about are single use plastic carrier bags. Those flimsy little things which get stuck in trees and drains, pollute the atmosphere and take up to 1,000 years to completely break down once sent to landfill.
Some people clocked that and regarded the announcement as a move to almost double the levy on carrier bags - currently Lidl’s ‘bag for life’ version costs 9p.
“Imagine a carrier bag costs more than a tin of beans,” wondered one Twitter user.
My colleague was even more outraged, pledging to avoid Lidl on her after-work shopping trips.
“If there was a choice between two shops - one that would charge me for a bag and one that wouldn’t - why would I pay more?” she asked.
To a certain extent, I can see where they’re coming from. After all, if you need a bag, you need a bag. Organised people - those ones who always know in advance when they are likely to run out of milk and know to the nearest pound what they have in their bank account - they will probably carry round spare bags tucked in their pockets or handbags at all times. This will not affect them.
I like to think the vast majority of the population, however, is more like me. I regularly juggle numerous bagless items, balancing punnets of strawberries on my four-year-old’s head - or carrying a sack of potatoes between my teeth as I head out of the supermarket door - just in a bid to avoid having to be that person who takes a carrier bag.
Even when I do give in and buy a bag, I never waste them. I use them again and again as bin liners, shoe bags, things to carry my lunch in to stop the apple from rolling out and getting covered in the detritus at the bottom of my other bag. They’re useful things and I would miss them if they were gone.
What I’m saying is that, like most people now, I don’t buy a bag these days unless I really need one. I am plastic bag conscious, all of the time.
And it is not because I’m worrying about the cost - 5p is a tiny amount, but it is the pyschological implications. Having to pay makes you think; it makes you reconsider whether you really, truly, need a bag and a lot of the time, it’s quite possible to manage without one.
Yet, do I still use more than I should? Yes. Does that measly 5p charge make me, as I am rushing out of the door to the supermarket, thinking ‘Darn, forgot the bags again’, take the lazy route and not turn back? Yes, of course it does.
What we need to realise is that here in the UK as a whole, we are way behind the times when it comes to single use plastic bags. Many, many countries throughout the world - and not even those which you would expect to be leading the way in environmental matters - have already scrapped bags entirely.
The Bangladeshi government was the first to do so in 2002, imposing a total ban on the traditional carrier bag. A similar ban has also been applied in countries such as Rwanda, China, Taiwan and Macedonia.
It is understood that in Rwanda, at least, where plastic bags were smothering entire ecosystems and choking the country’s waterways - there is a lucrative plastic bag trade on the black market. They have taken the ban to extremes - it does not just apply to plastic bags. In fact, all non-biodegradeable plastic has been banned from the country since 2002. Visitors entering Rwanda with their suitcases wrapped in that bizarre cling film touted by airports have it stripped from their luggage on arrival.
Meanwhile, companies in desperate need of cheap plastic packaging are reported to go to great lengths to smuggle the product in, with the guilty facing jail.
Perhaps if other stores follow Lidl’s example in Scotland, we may find the same.
Shady looking youths hanging around in supermarket car parks. “Wanna plastic bag?” they’ll hiss out of the corner of their mouths. You’ll nod, furtively and hand over your cash: well more than the 5p currently charged for the product. “How much did you pay?” you’ll mutter to the woman behind you at the checkout. “Dammit, I need another one. Have you got any spare? I’ll give you 50p.”
But maybe this move, which follows a similar decision in Lidl’s home market of Germany just a matter of days earlier, should be enough to make us - and our government - radically rethink our plastic bag policy.
After all, if Rwanda can do it, why can’t we?