Jane Bradley: Getting carried away with bag law

I’m not sure what the collective noun is for plastic bags. Whatever it is, there’s one under my desk.

The new 5p charge for carrier bags in stores has crept up on us. Picture: Jon Savage

Every day, I stash my lunch or snacks in a castaway supermarket carrier, pop it inside one of the growing number of jute bags which seem to appear in my house every time I attend anything (anything at all), and head to work. After eating the contents, I then add the plastic bag to the pile under my desk, with the intention of doing something with them sometime. I’m not sure what.

But since last Monday, their worth has sky rocketed from zero to, oooh, at least 70p.

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The new 5p charge for carrier bags in stores – not just supermarkets but in any shop – has crept up on us. Suddenly, we’re all walking around with a few old Tesco bags tucked away in our pockets, in case the need to buy something should suddenly come upon us.

And, from what I’ve seen, we actually are.

Shop workers I spoke to on the first day of the charge said they had sold few bags – most people were aware of the new legislation and had come prepared.

However, supermarkets admitted that they would struggle to police the number of bags people took from self-service checkouts, saying they had to trust their customers to own up and pay their dues.

But they shouldn’t worry – Scotland’s track record shows that we are actually very good at self-policing.

Take the smoking ban, for example.

When the ban on smoking in public places was introduced in 2006, a lot of people were sceptical. There was not going to be a huge team of “cigarette police” crawling over every building where anybody worked, checking individual bus shelters (but only those designs which were “wholly or partially enclosed” and therefore were subject to the ban) for sneaky smokers trying to bend the rules.

But somehow, despite this, it is now very rare to see anyone light up anywhere they shouldn’t.

And when they do, the world is stunned. “That person’s smoking,” you hear in a mass whisper around a bar. “SMOKING! How dare they? That is outrageous.”

And gradually, the offender realises that the entire place is staring at them as if they have taken a particularly fluffy kitten and set a match to its tail – rather than merely lighting a bit of paper and tobacco.

Less than a decade ago, however, it was de rigueur to arrive home after a brief visit to a pub smelling as if you had personally ingested a 50-pack of filterless roll-ups.

Similarly, what is an acceptable practice when driving a car is a constantly moving feast.

Just a few short years ago, it was normal for people to freely use a mobile phone at the wheel. Now, anyone who is spotted chatting away while driving is subject to all manner of vitriolic road rage from fellow drivers.

It is not the update in the laws themselves which are noteworthy – indeed, phoning while driving has been proved to be a major risk – but the enormous indignation and scorn with which someone who is breaking them is met that is interesting.

I think it is fair to say that we are a nation which does not like rule breaking.

For that reason alone, the carrier bag charge could be quite fun to police. The regulations set out by the Scottish Government involve a few quirky loopholes: someone who is picking up an exempt item such as a prescription is allowed to take a bag free of charge – but should have the 5p levy strictly implemented if they dare to slip inside a bottle of shampoo or box of paracetamol which they have bought from the same shop. The stores themselves will not be likely to employ carrier bag-specific security guards and Trading Standards certainly won’t have the manpower to do it. So, people of Scotland: it is up to us to tackle anyone who dares to consider committing such a heinous crime as breaking the bag law.

So, next time you’re planning a trip to the shops, make sure you have the Carrier Bag Charge Scotland website favourited on your phone – and look forward to hours of fun.