Stephen Jardine: Plastic bag charge is only the start

Alongside high rates of alcoholism and obesity, Scotland has another depressing claim to fame. Every year, this nation of five million souls goes through an incredible 
750 million plastic shopping bags. That’s 150 for every man, woman and child and more per person than England, Wales or Northern Ireland. For a nation with our incredible natural environment, that’s a grim statistic.

Stephen Jardine. Picture: Jon Savage
Stephen Jardine. Picture: Jon Savage

From Monday, something serious is being done about the problem. That’s the day Scottish Government legislation is introduced requiring all retailers to charge a minimum of 5p for a plastic carrier bag.

The move is long overdue. Wales and Northern Ireland have had the charge for some time and Scotland is playing catch up. Time matters on this issue. Environmental campaigners have calculated each bag is used for just 20 minutes on average but once discarded it can take 1,000 years for the polyethylene to degrade. The next time you see one fluttering in the breeze on a tree branch, just remember it will be there long after we are gone.

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So will a 5p charge be enough to discourage use? Experts believe there will be a sudden and dramatic drop in the number of bags bought but the challenge is to keep the numbers down when people get used to the charge.

That’s when the retailers need to act. At the moment there is no incentive for them to cut the number of bags in circulation. On the contrary, they are a handy source of free advertising.

But if every bag bought by a consumer had a matched cost to the retailer, persuading customers to reuse it might become a lot more attractive.

This summer, the city of Freemantle in Australia went one step further and banned retailers from providing shoppers with single-use plastic bags, with fines of up to $2,500 (£1,300)threatened.

Such draconian measures are a long way off here but we do need to tackle a problem that is a blight and a threat to our status as one of the most beautiful places in the world. Sadly, a small financial penalty is unlikely to solve the problem. What is needed is a change in public attitudes. Drink driving was one widely accepted but it’s now largely despised, thanks to hard-hitting public information campaigns.

From Monday, the money raised by the plastic bag charge belongs to the retailer to spend as they wish but it would be good to see them investing it in reusable bags with strong environmental messages.

We humans are pack animals and no one wants to be the antisocial outsider. On its own 5p won’t be enough to stop anyone buying a bag, but if taking one makes you look too thick to know or care about the environment, peer pressure might just make a difference.

So from Monday remember, a plastic bag’s not just for shopping, it’s for life.