Archive for February, 2012

This blog post is based on an essay I wrote for my course. I investigated whether a plastic bag tax should be introduced in major supermarkets in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland; currently Wales and Ireland have already implemented a plastic bag tax. In this post, ‘plastic bags’ refers to those that are currently free and for single-use, i.e. those found at supermarket tills.

Single, free use plastic bags have been described as a symbol of the wasteful and throwaway culture that characterises modern day Britain. Plastic bags contribute to a diverse range of environmental problems such as:

  • Plastic bags can take up to 1000 years to degrade
  • Plastic bags are a blight on the landscape (they’re always entangling themselves in tree branches and brambles)
  • Plastic bags are rarely recycled since they can only be recycled at special facilities in the UK. Most plastic bags end up in the landfill
  • Plastic bags can contaminate recycling centres if they are erroneously placed in the recycling bin, reducing profits since the quality of output is reduced
  • Plastic bags are lightweight and can be carried away by the wind from landfill sites even if they are disposed of in the rubbish (I have visited a landfill site and I was horrified by the sheer number of plastic bags that had entangled themselves in trees and bushes on site. The tour guide informed us that workers frequently had to collect these bags from the site to take them back to lanfill.)
  • Plastic bags can clog storm drains, which can result in floods (there is also a financial cost involved to remove them)
  • Plastic bags can be a hazard to wildlife e.g. marine wildlife who ingest or become entangled in plastic bags, resulting in death or injury e.g. marine turtles
  • The Environment Agency found that the greenhouse gas emissions associated with the entire life cycle of one plastic bag were 1.58 kilograms CO2 equivalent; this estimate includes the manufacture, transport and disposal of 1 plastic bag in landfill. This means that 1 plastic bag emits 1.58 kilograms of carbon dioxide over its ‘lifetime’. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas that is contributing to climate change.
  • Finally, because plastic bags are free, they share some responsibility in promoting a lack of environmental concern in the consumer, which is at odds with conscientious attitude that is required for sustainable development in the UK.

In 2010 in the UK, 6.4 billion bags were distributed freely by supermarkets. This accounts for approximately 2% of total annual UK greenhouse gas emissions. Bear in mind that the UK has an ambitious target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80% in 2050 according to the 2008 Climate Change Act (Well done UK!). As such, the reduction of free plastic bags could contribute to achieving this goal.

Back in 2008, the UK government and major supermarkets (ASDA, Sainsbury’s, Tesco, the Co-operative and Waitrose) agreed on a voluntary carrier bag commitment. This voluntary agreement had a target to reduce the number of plastic bags by 50% by Spring 2009, as compared to 2006. The agreement was made in response to a government threat of a plastic bag tax. The supermarkets reduced plastic bag usage by:

  • Incentivising customers to bring there own bags by providing store currency e.g. green Tesco clubcard points
  • Promoting the use of reusable bags and “bags for life” by advertising them on supermarket websites, magazines and within stores
  • Removing plastic bags at tills
  • Providing recycling facilities for plastic bags in the supermarket

These measures achieved a 48% reduction in the use of plastic bags in England by 2009, as compared to 2006 figures, narrowly missing the 50% target. No further targets were set because supermarkets were finding it much harder to deliver reductions in plastic bags, facing growing customer resentment from individuals who considered provision of plastic bags to be a free service.  However, the plastic bags are obviously not free, since the costs associated with their purchase, transport and storage are embedded in the supermarket prices. As a consequence, plastic bag usage increased from 6.1 billion bags across the UK in 2009 to 6.4 billion bags by 2010.

Other options were considered to reduce plastic bags e.g. using paper bags (however these aren’t as durable) or biodegradable bags (these aren’t as durable as conventional plastic bags; additionally they can only biodegrade when exposed to sunlight, which would obviously not happen to most plastic bags since they end up buried in landfill. As of 2011, Tesco have stopped providing biodegradable bags).

Ireland have had a plastic bag tax (PlasTax) since 2002. It has been highly successful, resulting in a 90% reduction in plastic bag use since implementation. This was a result of consumers changing their behaviour and opting to reduce the financial impact of buying bags by reusing them. This has reduced greenhouse gas emissions since less bags are now manufactured. Currently consumers in Ireland are charged 0.22 eurocents a bag. This money is collected to support waste recycling infrastructure  in Ireland. The scheme generates  approximately €1 million every month!

The Welsh government were disappointed by the outcome of the voluntary agreement signed by the supermarkets. As of October 2011, they have introduced a minimum charge of 5p for plastic bags. The Welsh government has recommended that proceeds generated by the plastic bag tax are to be donated to charities and environmental causes.

I believe a plastic bag carrier tax should be introduced in the rest of the UK. If it is successful, the tax should then be implemented to smaller retailers in order for there to be consistency in the government’s message of sustainable plastic bag reduction. There are many advantages of a plastic bag tax, including:

  • Little regulation or prosecution is required to uphold the system since the issue is not particularly difficult to implement or controversial to the public or to the retailer (e.g. Lidl already charge 5p a bag or so and they’re doing fine in the UK).
  • The tax is fair, since the customer who does bring their own bag does not have to subsidise the customer who forgets or refuses to bring their own bag. However, some customers who relied solely on free plastic bags may need to pay more to buy bags for their own use. On the other hand, other customers may benefit since retailers will pass on cost savings that were previously associated with purchasing and storing large quantities of bags.
  • The money generated by the levy will also benefit consumers since it would support local environmental projects (which I think is an excellent idea!)

In conclusion, although voluntary agreements can encourage customers to act in a sustainable manner, they cannot deliver the deeper impact that a financial charge can. The voluntary agreement failed of 2008, despite the threat of official regulation. A plastic bag tax also conveys a strong sense of responsibility for the environment, sending a powerful message to the public that the government is committed to sustainable development.  There are many environmental challenges ahead which will require major behavioural changes in order to minimise waste. Although single use plastic bags are not the biggest environmental threat the UK is faced with today, reducing their use is an important step in the right direction. It could inspire the pubic to address the issue of sustainable living and climate change through individual lifestyle change.

What is your view? Are free plastic bags our right as a consumers? Or are they a nuisance that belong to a age that does not consider long term sustainability issues? 


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Above, Thompson from the cat shelter. Isn’t he sweet? Last Sunday he almost got adopted – the lady was stroking his face, with me next to her saying ‘Err… he is a bit antsy with people you know…although he has come a long way’ (which is volunteer talk for watch out, he might swipe at you, but please consider adopting him anyway…I needn’t have been concerned though, he was as good as gold and very appreciative of being petted!).

In other news, my MP sent me a letter saying that animal welfare was ‘a high priority’ for them, having campaigned for ‘an end to the trade in cat and dog fur, defending the UK’s ban on the live export of British horses for slaughter and toughening up the rules on transport of animals’. Which is nice to know. Apparently, if wild animals were banned in circuses in Britain now, ‘it could be challenged in both British and European courts’. Which doesn’t make an awful lot of sense- after all, Greece managed to ban animal circuses without any challenges from European courts. My MP goes on to explain that ‘ultimately taxpayers would foot the bill for defending a legal challenge’ and as such, ‘the Government has to verify the legal status’ before going ahead. Fingers crossed that the ban goes ahead in any case!

Yesterday I saw a very frustrating video on BBC newsnight, regarding the pitiful salaries of supermarket workers (e.g. people who stack shelves) in supermarkets like Tesco, ASDA, Sainsbury’s and Morrisons. I was upset to hear that the workers were paid just over minimum wage, but they weren’t paid a living wage. A living wage refers to a wage that meet the basic needs of a worker; the wages that were paid by the supermarket giants simply weren’t meeting these needs because they were too low. As such, supermarket workers were supplementing their wages from state benefits i.e. the taxpayer. Effectively, the taxpayer is subsidising the supermarket giants which generate £4 billion profits between them annually, which goes to CEOs and stakeholders, instead of being shared out fairly among the workers. One of my dreams in life is to stop buying from supermarkets altogether; instead I would like to rely on farmer’s markets, independent sellers and buying in bulk from suppliers. There are many other reasons that I don’t like big supermarkets – I think they have very little respect for workers, farmers, consumers, animal welfare, zero waste and the environment.

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I volunteer at a cat shelter in London every week, which is something I enjoy greatly. From a previous post, you may remember reading about a cat called Samantha – she is now homed! However, the cat shelter has a waiting list of over 300 cats (it’s capacity is around 50), so there’s always more ‘supply’ than demand 😦

I have been volunteering at the shelter for just over 1 month, and already I have seen a remarkable transformation of a very grumpy cat called Thompson into a friendly, confident cat. Initially Thompson would hiss whenever you came near him, and would even swipe at you with his claws. He was very scared, and wouldn’t leave his bed. Luckily there are volunteers who help socialise unfriendly cats. It’s a slow process, but here are a few tricks:

1. Blinking (slowly) – this is cat language for ‘trust me, I’m a friend’

2. Don’t look a fearful cat straight in the eye, as this is perceived as a threat. Instead, turn your face away from the cat to show that you’re not looking at him/her, which is perceived as being friendly.

3. Use a stroker- a tool to stroke a cat that would otherwise scratch you. This takes a lot of patience – Thompson used to hiss in fear at it initially. Eventually, Thomson began to trust people and would accept being stroked by the stroker, and found that he quite enjoyed it! Some cats are very particular about where they like and don’t like being stroked. For example, there is a cat at the shelter called Sunday who’s very fearful. She hates being stroked on her back, but she quite enjoys being stroked under her chin. Every cat is different!

Thompson is now much more friendly- he will come out of his cage, brush himself against your legs and is generally a lot more confident. Fingers crossed that he’ll find a loving home!

What does all this have to do with used stamps? Well, the cat shelter that I volunteer at collects used stamps which it can generate funds from. I would like to ask people (who don’t already collect used stamps to donate to charity) to please save their used stamps for me, so I can pass them on to the cat shelter. You don’t even have to peel them off the envelope- just cut/carefully rip them off the envelope and store them safely. It’s a shame for the stamps to go straight in the bin (or more accurately, to be recycled) after all, when instead they can help charities.

Many thanks!


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I was delighted to hear that Greece has now banned animal circuses as of the 2nd of February 2012. I was surprised to find out that Greece is the first country in Europe to ban all animals from circuses and performances, particularly since Greece is known for having a poor animal welfare record. Of course, there may be a discrepancy between the actual law and the implementation of the law, but it is certainly a step in the right direction.

Naturally, I was shocked that the UK had not banned wild animals in circuses. The practice is cruel, not least because the animals would be unable to fulfill their natural instincts in small cramped cages, but also because they are forced to perform tricks in front of large, noisy crowds.

I was inspired to visit my local MP (Member of Parliament) about the issue. I wanted to ask my MP to sign the Early Day Motion (EDM) 2563, which calls for a ban on wild animals in circuses in the UK. An EDM is a motion that is signed by MPs so that it can be debated at some point in the future. EDMs draw attention to specific campaigns/events. The EDM on banning wild animals in circuses only had 82 signatures (bear in mind that there are 650 MPs). However, EDMs are unlikely to be debated. That said, this particular issue was debated last year in June; the government preferred to have a licensing system as opposed to an outright ban. I do not know why the Conservatives think that it is appropriate for wild animals to be kept in cages and forced to perform in this day an age, even with a ‘license’. Indeed, of the 82 signatures for the EDM 2563, only five are Tory MPs!

To cut a long story short, I visited my local MP yesterday at their office. However, my MP was not well and recovering at home. I got to speak to the secretary of the MP instead. She informed me that EDMs weren’t that influential anyway. I asked her what the MP’s stance on animal welfare was in general- the secretary didn’t know off the top of her head (clearly not high on the list of priorities), but she assured me that I would receive an email detailing my MPs stance. Which is good enough for me. Ultimately, it gets my MP thinking about the issue. That said, I can’t imagine MPs are terribly influential- after all, they are one in 650! But as Tesco like to say, every little helps.

There are other ways of helping animals, that are perhaps more effective. For example, I am on the PETA emailing list. PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) is perhaps the largest animal rights group in the world. Not without controversies however, as PETA has been criticised heavily by both vegans and non-vegans. Personally, I do not agree with all their campaigns, but I recognise their power, and the benefits associated with their power. For example, last week I received an email from PETA asking me to email Air France requesting them to cancel the transportation of 60 live monkeys from Africa to the US for use in animal experiments. Within 24 hours, Air France were bombarded with 68 000 emails demanding this very issue. Needless to say, Air France cancelled their plans to deliver the monkeys. A small victory, but success nonetheless.

To conclude, if you want to change an existing system, don’t be afraid to do something about it, however small your action may be. This could involve emailing or even speaking to your local MP, or aligning yourself with a powerful organization.

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