Saturday, 20 October 2007

Plastic bags, paper bags and compulsion

A city is reportedly set to become the first in Britain to ban stores from handing out plastic bags.  Shoppers in Brighton, East Sussex, will instead be encouraged to use eco-friendly reusable bags after councillors ordered retailers not to hand out plastic bags.  The authority reportedly voted unanimously to pass an outright ban.  Members also agreed to lobby the Government, the city's three MPs and the Local Government Association for a ban on the bags.  Tory councillor Maria Caulfield, who put forward the motion, told local newspaper The Argus: 'This sends a clear message to consumers and retailers that plastic bags are not good for the environment.'  Annually, an estimated 17.5 billion plastics bags are given away nationally by supermarkets - enough to cover the combined area of London, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle and West Yorkshire.  About 3.5 million bags a year are distributed in Brighton and Hove alone.  Each bag can take anything between 400 and 1,000 years to break down and rot away.  In Britain, at least 200 million bags end up as waste on beaches, streets and parks every year but Defra said the Government had no plans to introduce a tax on plastic bags at present.

How laudable, you may say...a council with the bottle to make a real decision about changing the environment.  I agree but with one caveat.  Yet again, the solution to a problem is to be resolved by banning something.  This now appears to be the norm for government at virtually every level.  Whether it's smoking or obesity or travel or, well just about anything else, government's first response appears to be to ban it.  If we don't like it of course we can vote the offending politicians out at the next election but that misses the point.  We appear to be drifting into an authoritarian system of government where compulsion, whether presumed or not, is becoming the norm.  The problem is that these decisions can be based on specious science.  Take the level of alcohol that is 'safe'.  It appears that the number of units people should drink was plucked out of the air rather than being based on sound scientific judgements.  If you look at the estimated number of plastic bags given away nationally and then divide it by the total population of the UK you come up with a figure of 2916 bags being given away to every person in the country by supermarkets each year or 8 bags a day and then presumably there are plastic bags not handed out by supermarkets.  So where do these figures come from?  Or have they just be plucked out of the air? 

Now there is a case for compulsion in society but only where there is either a direct threat to individuals within the community from actions that have a deleterious impact on others or where persuasion to change behaviour has been unsuccessful.  In other areas, individuals should be able to make up their own minds unemcumbered and not penalised by the local and national state.  To paraphrase Dunning's proposal: 'the role of the state has increased, is increasing and ought to be diminished'.

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