Andrew Vine: Charging for carrier bags is small price for pay for a big change

Scarborough's North Bay - but what more can be done to tackle litter?
Scarborough's North Bay - but what more can be done to tackle litter?
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TOMORROW will mark the first anniversary of a quiet social revolution that, for once, has changed Britain for the better.

It was a year ago that a 5p charge was introduced for plastic bags in large shops, with smaller stores following suit of their own accord, and a blow was struck against the horrid epidemic of litter.

The trees in the park near my home are no longer disfigured by shredded bags caught in the branches and fluttering like ugly pennants, nor are there any clogging up the hedgerows or shrubs.

Rubbish remains a blight on our streets and countryside, but there is less of it than a year ago, and that is thanks to the small charge which has slashed the number of bags in use by 80 per cent.

Most people would not miss 5p if it fell out of their pocket or purse, but the psychological effect of being asked to pay those few coppers has proved powerful.

The idea of bowling up to the supermarket checkout with trolley piled high and grabbing a handful of free bags has, with a minimum of fuss, become alien to us even though we’ve all done it for decades.

Instead, the new habit of automatically chucking a few of our own bags into the trolley before we hit the aisles has become ingrained. Shoppers have, without quite realising it, become champions of the environment, even if on a modest scale.

But the effect of the bag charge has only marked the winning of one battle in the ongoing war against litter.

There are still as many villains as champions out there, dumping the packaging of whatever they eat or drink without a thought or care where it falls.

My local park may be now be bag-free, but the audience leaving a concert there a couple of weeks ago marked the route back to their cars with a trail of bottles, cans, burger boxes and all the other detritus of an evening out deposited into front gardens along the way.

A couple of weeks earlier, the same trail of the take-away society was visible along the sands of Scarborough’s North Bay, as day-trippers packed up and went home without bothering to put their rubbish in the bins that line the foreshore.

And that trail leads to the conclusion that it’s time to open up a new front in the war on litter, with our sights trained on plastic bottles.

Those left on Scarborough’s beach represent the 160 bottles per mile of British coastline that were collected during a national weekend of litter-picking last year.

Britain takes the caps off a mind-boggling 38.5m plastic bottles every day, and only half of them ever find their way into recycling.

A lot of the rest are just dumped, with drinks containers accounting for 40 per cent of all Britain’s litter.

This is why the Government, planning a new national strategy to tackle litter, ought to take heed of a study released last week by Cardiff University.

The research found the public willing to support a deposit scheme for plastic bottles, such as operates in Germany, where 98.5 per cent are returned for recycling.

The charge for plastic bags, and the increased awareness of how much less waste was floating around Britain as a result, had led to the desire to do something about bottles.

Germany, in common with several other European countries, uses vending machines with an unusual twist. They pay out for every empty bottle put in, the refund being covered by a small hike in the cost of the drink.

This might produce a wry smile in people of a certain age, because it’s using technology to go back to the future.

Generations of children grew up on the idea of earning a few pennies for sweets by returning pop bottles to the shops where they were bought and collecting the deposits.

The fact that older people tend to be more conscientious about not littering than the young has a lot to do with this. Empties that were found lying about were pounced on and returned, because they were worth something, and it helped to establish the habit of keeping surroundings tidy.

The word “recycling” was not widely used, because along with putting milk bottles on the step for collection, nobody thought of it like that. It was simply something that everybody did as part of the daily routine.

It would be in all our interests to reinvent that routine of tidying up, even if it takes a small price increase to pay for a deposit scheme.

As earlier generations were with glass bottles, children would once again become the most enthusiastic recyclers of all, and that’s a good habit to get into when you are young.

Dramatically reducing the number of plastic bags defacing our landscape has been a notable victory. It’s time to let battle commence against the bottles.