5p Plastic Bags: Big Companies lose Free Advertising

This week, England caught up with the rest of the kingdom by charging 5p for a plastic carrier bag. Personally, I’ve been using a cloth bag since the 1990s. I still have my Body Shop bag from then, still going strong. It even has a message about sustainable living on it. All the 5p charge changes in my shopping habits is having to ask the cashier to remove the item from the carrier bag they whipped it into faster than I could produce my cloth bag collection.

I have wondered why large supermarkets in particular were against the changes in England. Surely, the supermarkets have to pay to produce plastic bags, and I presume they sneak a penny or two onto the items in store to overcompensate (make a profit) on this production. By not dishing out so many, and by not reducing their produce prices, they stand to make even more profit.

Some supermarkets have green point schemes, where they give you a loyalty point for reusing a bag. So they will be giving out more free loyalty points to spend in store than previously. They may also sneak a few pennies on items to compensate for the profit loss for green points. Putting profit before the environment is a big turn off for loyalty in my books.

Then it dawned on me that supermarkets use bags as advertising.

A bag is a mobile advert that they don’t have to pay for (which is why you see students wearing massive advert boards – if it’s not fixed to the ground, there’s no charge). Carrying a branded shopping bag is free advertising to a particular company. Now, you have the potential of paying 5p to advertise the place where you shop.

As an environmental scientist, I am glad that something has been done about plastic bags made from petroleum sources (you can make plastic bags from much more recent plant material). But standing in the queue to pay, the approach to pay is lined with plastic bags with the company logo on them, that claim to last longer for you (and probably in the food stream once it’s broken). This is nothing to do with helping the environment, even if some bags have a bee on them. This is to get you to pay the company, to advertise the company. As you know, the 5p goes to charity, not the company. If you choose to buy one of the plastic bags, you support the company, not a charity or the environment.

I’d be happier about the money going to charity if I could choose which charity the 5p went to. A local one, where I could see the benefit to people’s lives. Too many charities behave lik businesses, with a lot of waste in admin. Very little of the money you donate actually gets to where you think it’s going.

Locally, the transition to bringing your own bags was very easy. My house mate asked, “If people can do it today, why couldn’t they do it before?” The answer is simple – there was no immediate incentive to. People prioritise money over well being. If the choice is to buy organic food at whatever that costs, or buy pesticide laden food grown using practices that harm the environment for a cheaper price, people prioritise money over well being. A financial cost is sadly prioritised over a health cost for too many. Now a financial cost is placed on petroleum plastic bags, and it is this that shifts people’s habits, not the pure belief of living sustainably.

While I could just stick to advertising the Body Shop with my cloth bag, I much prefer to use my UK Meet tote bags. It’s not advertising a company in particular, but a love of reading and writing. It advertises my personality a lot more. My shopping bag is an extension of self-expression. Health permitting, I’m going to make bags that have no branding on them at all. They will be a unique expression of me to a size that I want, probably covered in belly dance shiny bling, rainbows and dragons.

Everybody else hoarded plastic bags, which could be sold at 4p outside shops to make a profit. I hoard fabric oddments. If anyone would like a bag made in fabrics you like, to dimensions that fit what you intend to carry, with pockets to fit your smaller stuff and possibly security zips and loops, please get in touch. 🙂

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