How to stop using plastic bags

There's no need to panic about the plastic carrier charge, says Emma Hutchings, who started her own personal boycott nearly two years ago.

Click to follow
The Independent Online


According to the headlines in some of yesterday's papers, England is currently in a state of plastic bag “chaos”, all because of a new 5p charge for plastic bags in supermarkets. There's really no need for chaos, because there's really no need for plastic bags.

I gave them up as a New Year's resolution at the end of 2013. Considering I was nearing a 10-a-week habit, it's been surprisingly easy. In the first six months, I'll admit to two occasions when I forgot to pack spare fabric bags in my handbag, and broke my resolution. Plus one more lapse, when I didn't want to risk a repeat of a bad experience with takeaway sushi that leaked seaweedy water all down my jeans.

But the guilt of those transgressions got to me, and on subsequent shop visits when I forgot, I simply cradled a bundle of groceries in my hands or forked out for another cloth bag, adding to my growing collection. And I found a flat-bottomed fabric bag that's perfect for keeping trays of sushi upright.

Now, it's been more than a year since I accepted a new plastic bag in a shop. The habit has stuck; I would no sooner leave the house without a spare bag than my keys and I won't countenance breaking my resolution. A case in point arose while having my picture taken for this article – the photographer said an orange Sainsbury's bag would stand out well, so suggested we should pop in to buy something. 

“But I can't get the bag – it can't be me!” I exclaimed, slightly panicking. It would have ruined a whole year's abstinence. 

The inspiration behind my resolution was a book by the ocean rower Roz Savage MBE. She dedicated her record-breaking solo crossings of the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans to publicising the destructive effects of plastic in the seas. And she practised what she preached: during months at sea, she didn't throw a single item of rubbish overboard. I guess this slightly obsessive but simple commitment to a cause appealed to me. I had long felt guilty about the huge “bag of bags” in the cupboard beneath the sink (and the many more that I must have unthinkingly sent to landfill) and this resolution was an easy way to put a stop to it. 

When I mention my boycott to people, they often express similar intentions and confess to similar hoards of bags. They intend to take reusable bags out shopping but usually forget. This mandatory charge could be the reminder that people need. In Wales, where the charge was brought in in 2011, new bag use has dropped by a whopping 71 per cent. I don't think this is simply down to the financial “penalty”. If I'm saving 10 bags a week, that adds up to £26 a year. It's hardly a financial incentive equal to the environmental damage of throwaway plastic. However, it does have the effect of addressing the other side of the bag transaction: not only are customers too prone to forgetting their reusable bags, staff are too willing to dish out plastic carriers willy-nilly.

In fact, my biggest frustration in this venture has been the heedless attitude of many store assistants who start peeling open a bag before you've even got to the till. Now they will be forced to ask first, giving customers a second to let the eco-guilt within them say no, actually, I don't need a bag to carry this bottle of milk that comes with its own handle. I know not everyone will take that attitude. In the knick-knack chain shop Tiger, which has charged people for bags long before it became law, I once saw a woman have a full-on strop after she was asked to pay 5p. Some people see plastic bags as a right, as essential to the shop's end of the bargain as being handed a receipt.

Putting a stop to that automatic bag-reflex on both sides of the counter is the best thing about this new law. It means that people will have to think, just for a second, about whether they actually need a plastic bag. And I've proved, in the past year, that the answer is “No”.