Take a good coalition environmental move and Owen Paterson will undermine it

Paterson in Carrier BagPutting an acknowledged environmental sceptic in charge of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs was always going to be bad news. Shropshire MP Owen Paterson’s sympathies lie with industrial scale farming and fracked landscapes. He hates windfarms and is a global warming sceptic. Now he’s trying to restrict the scope of the carrier bag charge.

It’s no surprise then that he is reluctant to introduce a charge on supermarket carrier bags. Previously, Defra sat on its heels. Its ministers claimed it needed better evidence about the impact of a charge. That’s an ironic position to take given that Defra has launched a badger cull against the scientific evidence of the Krebs trails.

It is true that under the former Labour government, Defra became obsessed with carbon emissions at the expense of the contribution of the environment to wellbeing and biodiversity – as did much of the environmental movement. It fretted that a one use paper bag used more carbon than a well-used plastic bag. Everyone but CPRE and few other charities ignored the impact of plastic bags on landfill, the landscape, our streets and the seas.

Nick Clegg announced a five pence charge from autumn 2015 at the Glasgow conference. Yesterday at the Conservative conference, Owen Paterson declared that he wants 100% degradable bags to be charge free (full speech). Although these bags will eventually degrade, until they do they will still litter our environment and damage wildlife. Many will be tipped and create methane in landfill. And issuing free carrier bags does nothing to encourage reuse, the most environmentally friendly option.

Even the Daily Mail has been calling for a charge for years. So why is Paterson so reluctant to introduce a bag charge? Some think he is a political hostage of the bag industry, which is furious about the charge. But I don’t think that is the real reason.

Owen Paterson glories in his reputation as an environmental sceptic. Old style Tories admire him. His legacy as a Defra minister will be dragging Britain back to the bad old world of anti-environmentalism and that for many Conservatives is something to be celebrated. Paterson and his supporters are taking us back to a world where present day consumption is more important than caring for a natural environment that future generations will need much more than us. Professor Kevin Anderson of Manchester University told the Independent: “His view that we can muddle through climate change is a colonial, arrogant, rich person’s view.” That’s spot on.

I’m just popping off to Aldi. I’ll take my rucksack rather than pay for plastic bags. I’ve not once heard a complaint at an Aldi checkout about its longstanding bag charges. Customers come to Aldi with their own bags. If Aldi and Marks and Spencer can do it, and whole countries like Ireland and Wales, why can’t Owen Paterson ensure that every other supermarket in England does it?

It’s time for a reshuffle and to send Owen Paterson to somewhere less damaging to the world’s future. It is also time for the Lib Dems to develop a strong environmental voice within Defra to counter the anti-environment sentiments of the current Tory paradigm.

* Andy Boddington is a Lib Dem living in Shropshire, and a former editor for Lib Dem Voice

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22 Comments

  • Eddie Sammon 1st Oct '13 - 2:28pm

    The 5p plastic bag policy is not fair because it is authoritarian and hurts the poor the most. I also strongly disagree with getting private firms to run public services.

    The green sector can flourish without state support in the private sector and it can flourish with state support in the public sector, they can even co-exist, but getting private firms to spend public money is the worst of both worlds.

  • Suggest you get a small kitchen bucket with a lid, Joe! My hardware store sells them for a couple of quid.

    And I’ve been reusing my 4 bags for life for the family shopping every week for several years, now. They are a bit battered now, but still comfortably hold at least twice as much each as a disposable carrier. Do you really think 8-10 bags a week (400 -500 a year), even reused, would have less impact than using the same bags every week for years?

  • Carrier bags are but just a small part of the problem!

    Whilst Tesco’s has been operating a carrier bag collection scheme for some years now, so I’ve been able to recycle those that get accumulated from those trips where bags get forgotten. What was noticeable and has become even more noticeable now that our recycling scheme collects ALL plastic containers excluding bags and film, is just how much plastic film does go into the dustbin: bread bags, frozen food bags, plastic film from wrapped fresh food etc. etc.

    The scary thing is that as Andy notes, the problems with plastic in landfill have been known about since at least the late 1980’s when Milton Keynes first introduced its recycling scheme, but still we are effectively doing not-a-lot about it.
    Being brutally honest, the reason why so much still goes into landfill is wholly down to the lack of action by central government.

  • Andy Boddington 1st Oct '13 - 4:11pm

    @Joe Otten
    Your case against a carrier bag charge is that of a doctor who refuses to treat a patients for a minor aliments because they have cancer. The health and wellbeing of patients and the environment alike means simultaneous treatment at a range of levels.

    With the environment, we must act globally, nationally, locally and personally. Reducing carrier bag use is perhaps a small step against the global challenges, but it is one we can achieve and we can do it now. There is a big environmental mountain still to climb, but how do you climb a mountain? One step at a time.

  • Andy Boddington 1st Oct '13 - 4:22pm

    @GPPurnell

    I have a plastic container I inherited when a neighbour moved out (I emptied his bin before the waste company got to it.). All food waste goes into wheelie bins which do pre-digestion before going into the compost heap in the community garden. The rotting food helps break down perennial roots and other hard to compost items that often come through the compost bins unscathed.

    I am guilty in having eight plastic carrier bags in 2013 (my personal allowance is one a month).

    The point of these details is that once you get yourself into a minimal use and recycling state of mind, becoming environmentally friendly comes naturally.

  • @Eddie “The 5p plastic bag policy is not fair because it is authoritarian and hurts the poor the most.”

    How can it hurt the poor more? any hurt is self inflicted: either take bag(s) or other suitable containers with you to the shops or pay for carrier bag(s) at the till.

  • Eddie Sammon 1st Oct '13 - 6:08pm

    Roland I know there are ways people can adjust but it will affect some of the poor. I am just against the idea of increasing the price of “bads” and lowering the price of “goods”. When you combine this policy with other favourites from the same school of thought it leads to increases in alcohol, petrol, utilities, cigarettes, all of which hurt the poor the most. Then you smack them in the face by subsidising “goods”, which usually ends up being sending money to private businesses.

  • Sorry Eddie, “it will affect some of the poor” so what? It wasn’t that long ago (and well within my working life) people including “the poor” had shopping bags or trolleys and the supermarkets didn’t stock carrier bags. Yes free carrier bags are a convenience and help supermarkets sell more, because you pop in for a loaf of bread and walk out with a bag or more of goods.

    Plus you are forgetting, they are already paying for the “free” carrier bags three times!, just not explicitly: The first time is at the checkout when it is given to them. The second time is when they put it in the dustbin and pay the council to empty it somewhere . That somewhere is typically landfill, which then introduces the third payment, because landfill sites have to be managed and maintained whilst their contents decompose…

    As for the attempted linkage with policies over alcohol and cigarettes, well you really are grasping at straws over this.

    About the only place where this may have a real effect is Poundland et al. where to be true to their slogan, they will have to charge £1 for a carrier bag. :)

  • @Joe “But reusing the “disposable” carrier bag is probably a better option environmentally than the much heavier “bag for life”.”

    From the way you’ve worded this, I take it that you don’t actually know the answer to your own question and hence haven’t actually assessed your own use of carrier bags? From my experience the plastic bag for life lasts significantly longer than the standard supermarket single trip plastic bag (yes that is what is designed for) and the heavier weight bags made out of woven recycled plastic that some places sell last even longer (I’m still using a set of such bags from when I lived in Japan in the early 90’s! – they only came back to the UK as I needed extra bags for all the stuff I had accumulated).

    The real challenge is because you know shops supply bags, you tend to not plan your trip and so forget to take bags with you, hence bring home a whole bunch of disposable carrier bags… Obviously, with a bag charge, people will soon re-learn how to plan for their weekly shopping trips.

  • Eddie Sammon 1st Oct '13 - 8:37pm

    Roland, I’m against the policy because it is authoritarian and hurts the poor, it is the combination of the two that I don’t like. I know we disagree on the extent of the damage, but we’ll just have to leave it as that.

    I wasn’t clutching at straws when I linked the policy to the wider agenda of increasing the price of “bads” and reducing the cost of “goods” because I have made this link before and been a consistent critic of it.

    There is also the third problem of lobbying and conflicts of interest. Lobbyists with vested interests have clearly had a direct influence and benefit from this policy and many other recent announcements.

  • Eddie Sammon 1st Oct '13 - 10:16pm

    I’m just going to retract my time-limited opposition to private sector outsourcing. I understand this is often the most efficient thing to do, I just do not have faith in the current process, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be improved.

  • Eddie, I get the authoritarian angle but I would of liked to have seen some more substance to your claim of it hurting the poor, other than possibly forcing some to purchase a few “bags-for-life”.

  • Eddie Sammon 2nd Oct '13 - 1:18am

    Roland, I see I am probably overestimating the pain on the poor, but there will still be some. My aversion to the policy cannot be whittled down to a single cause. Having said this, you were right to pull me up on my level of criticism of the policy.

  • Eddie Sammon 2nd Oct '13 - 1:42am

    The press releases say that the 5p bag charge applies to supermarkets and larger stores, will this include convenience stores such as Tesco Express? If it includes convenience stores then I think the cost of the policy to the poor is significant enough to cause concern. I would be against it anyway, because I think a better solution would be to just ban them from supermarkets, if action is required, because 5p isn’t going to put too many people off buying them. To me, it just looks like a way that a vested interest has found to make money – the charities.

  • Andy Boddington 2nd Oct '13 - 7:42am

    This charge is NOT a tax on the poor. People with little money are very careful in their shopping habits. They take all the bags they need with them, or they load directly into the car. You can see this operating any day at Aldi, which is the cheapest store in this town. I have very rarely seen anyone buying a bag at Aldi and have never heard a complaint about its charging policy.

    If it can work for cheaper stores like Aldi and up range stores like M&S, I can’t see why it will be any problem for the others.

    Yes, everyone gets caught out occasionally, but for me that’s a reminder that I need to be better prepared.

  • Eddie Sammon 2nd Oct '13 - 5:54pm

    To draw a conclusion to this I would say that I accept the policy will probably be very effective at reducing plastic bag use, I just don’t think it is the best way to go about it.

  • Joe Otten – you’re still doing it! Unless you are American, you are a sceptic, NOT a skeptic!

  • @Tim13: I prefer to be aseptic.

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