Banning the bags: Like the smoking ban, charging 5p for bags is justifiable

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The Independent Online

The gutters of England, and the surrounding seas, may start looking a little less clogged up. Monday was the first day that English shoppers were required to pay 5p if they wanted to carry their goods home in a new plastic bag. Similar moves in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales have seen drops of up to 70 per cent in usage of these carriers, which clog up landfill sites and, all too often, find their way into marine environments to the cost of the ecosystem therein.

It might be said the move is regressive, adding to the burden a weekly shop puts on the poorest people and families. But nobody is incapable of bringing their own bags to a supermarket. Nor will the money raised simply plump the profit margins of the shops compelled to charge an additional 5p: 4p will go to charities, and only the remaining penny to the Treasury.

A more pressing question is whether the move actually goes far enough. Campaigners say the raft of exemptions – for small businesses, and when purchasing certain items – will make life difficult for cashiers, and undermine the reform’s stated green purpose. They have a point. The bag charge is universal in the other home nations, and if England wanted to achieve the same success in combating these damaging products, it would have introduced it in the same format. That many small businesses are signing up to the charge voluntarily suggests it is not widely seen as an imposition, but a long overdue response to environmental carelessness.

It is, of course, an illiberal measure, an intervention of the state in the marketplace. But, as with the smoking ban, there are occasions on which such strong-arming is justified in the name of the common good – and this undeniably counts as that.