Aarian Marshall is a transportation reporter at WIRED and former CityLab contributor. She lives in San Francisco.
Hint: It has to do with a new tax.
Head to the Internet right now—do not wait!!!—to purchase a single Tesco plastic bag, roughly 11 years old, from eBay seller gome602013. Is it possible this bloke, based in England, is selling a vintage, branded grocery bag for £1.99 ($3.05) because 2004 was an excellent year for plastics? It is possible. But gome602013 is just one of a number of British online sellers offering bags for less-than-bargain prices, and the timing doesn’t seem to be an accident. England’s plastic bag tax kicked in October 5.
England is the last country in the UK to institute a tax on plastic bags. The English are now are charged 5p (about $.08) per bag acquired at a store or chain with 250 or more employees (with exemptions). The BBC reports that retailers are expected to donate the levy “to good causes”; the government believes that they will raise more than $1.1 billion in the next ten years. In return, England is expected nearly $100 million in litter cleaning costs, and $20 million in carbon savings.
So some Brits have taken to eBay. One seller offers “a variety of carrier bags,” 20 in total, for £0.75. “Mostly Tesco bags so you know you'll get at least 5 shops out of [them], maybe more,” the seller writes. “I once heard that some guy in Edinburgh got 16 shops out of some Tesco carrier bags,” the seller continues, helpfully.
Another “Beat the Charge” special offers 100 plastic bags for £2.50. And one jokester is selling “5 random plastic bags” at a bargain £1,000. “[M]ay contain traces of nuts and the odd receipt,” the seller writes. “[I]f you are lucky you may get a bag within a bag—it's like bagception.”
It’s all in good fun, probably, but the English (and Americans?) should get it straight: Plastic bags are a big problem. In 2014, researchers performed 600 video and trawl surveys in European waters and came, as CityLab’s own John Metcalfe wrote, “to the depressing conclusion that the trash is everywhere, from the deepest to shallowest points, to near-coast shelves and regions as remote as the Charlie-Gibbs Fracture Zone.” (This is quite literally in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.) Plastics choke wildlife, clog storm drains, and get caught in trees.
Taxes have proven, again and again, to reduce the number of plastic bags used by consumers. A 5p tax in nearby Wales led to a 71 percent reduction in use over four years. Recent data from Washington, D.C., shows the American capital’s $0.05 tax reduced plastic bag usage by more than 50 percent.
Advice to the long-suffering English: Splurge for a few reusable bags. You will probably get more than “16 shops” out of one, and you may also save the world. Worse comes to worse, you’ll have too many.