Gareth Huw Davies

Environment Blog

Just how easy is it to give up the plastic bag?

Wales today, rest of the UK banning plastic tomorrow? Well, not quite tomorrow,..

If you’re looking for some rare good news, even if it’s only small and symbolic, before the climate change talks in Durban this week, I’ll offer you this.

I stood outside a Tesco Extra hypermarket in Swansea last weekend while on a visit to Wales, waiting for my wife to do some quick shopping.

After a few minutes I realised something strange was happening. There was a steady stream of people coming out holding a few items in their hands as they made for their car.

And the people pushing trolleys had their purchases arranged in “bags for life” or the equivalent. What was missing from this busy post-shopping scene was a single standard Tesco plastic bag.  Just two months after the Welsh government required retailers to charge 5p for single use plastic bags that are still given away in their millions every day in Scotland and England, people seem to be coping quite well.

I would go as far as to say that I don’t there will be any going back. Wales has just become the first part of the UK to do away with free plastic bags handed out without question at any point of sale.

I say this without any real research, apart from asking family members and friends who live in Wales, and – a great help to the short-of-time journalist, this – typing “plastic bags” into the news section of Google.

I also tried a search Twitter, as a backup.

And there is hardly anything there. Before the ban in Wales, on October 1st, there  were some ritual cries of outrage from the retail trade, suggesting that it was all done in a bit of a rush and they weren’t ready.

In my search I couldn’t find anything to indicate  the start of a campaign to reverse the measure.

Lawmakers in Scotland and England cannot believe their luck. Here is a live experiment on their doorstep, with all the evidence ready measured when they consider introducing it themselves, as they surely will, over the next few years.

I realise I could be proved horribly wrong, when the first “bring back the free plastic bags” demonstration turns ugly on the streets of Cardiff a few weeks from now.  But that’s not going to happen, because this is a change to which it is so very easy to adjust.

There are some counter arguments, I admit. Looking at the many news stories, mainly from the USA, where cities and towns are considering bringing in the ban themselves, some people argue that the environmental footprint of the plastic bag isn’t so high, and more resources are used in making the paper bags that will surely be needed in, say, clothes shops.

There may be something in that, though not enough to balance out the worldwide blight on the landscape from the discarded plastic bag, and the long-term and insidious way plastic works its way into the natural system, for instance through fish and sea birds ingesting those tiny particles of plastic that were part of a bag many years ago.

Researching a subject online invariably leads you to a very plausible counter-argument, such as this one I’ve just given, even if it’s one held only by a small minority.

This really is one of the softest targets among our many environmental priorities.  It’s safe to say that nobody at all has suffered because of this, really. In fact in Wales, there are real winners, because people who do pay 5p for their bag are contributing to a big charity fund.

And the other targets are so very much harder to hit. Try persuading those people in Wales  who have given up plastic bags to now start walking to shops within half a mile of where they live as their next contribution to the environment. Not so easy at all, and not just in Wales of course.

Even so, we should applaud this small victory in a daunting morass of environmental challenges.