Monday, 21 August 2017

The daylight robbery of carrier bags - my Coalville Times column

All of us have pet hates; those small, seemingly inconsequential things which really get our goat.

It may be that you despise those ignorant individuals who continue having a telephone conversation whilst being served in the supermarket or bank; or what about people who delight, just because they can, in telling you about the ending of a book before you have reached it? I genuinely once nearly ended up in a fist fight when a friend told me of the death of a central character in the latest Harry Potter novel before I got to the climactic chapter.

And, of course, being involved in politics you have to be acutely aware of the foibles of anyone you happen to be knocking on the door of and the way they may respond. I’m certain that political canvassers lose more votes than they ever gain by crossing over gardens instead of walking up and down drives. I once had a homeowner I was canvassing open both metaphorical barrels on me for disturbing his gravel; to most people an act so trivial but to him one of high importance.

The privilege of a newspaper columnist though is the ability to set out our own pet hates as ‘quasi-news’ and to all intents and purposes force our odd opinions on the wise and receptive readership of this esteemed newspaper.

So with that I would like to talk you today about something that really, really gets up my nose and I’ll try and explain why it should get up yours too.

My story this week goes back a number of years to the birth of our third child. There were now five of us living in our house, the youngest two being in nappies, and no matter how much recycling we did our wheelie bin was always overflowing.

I telephoned the local council and a lovely fellow came out to explain to us top tips for recycling better. The nice man from the council explained that our greatest enemies were, of all things, black bin bags; he explained in great detail, honestly I though a PowerPoint was coming, that large bin liners created air cavities in our wheelie bin and that we would finds ourselves easily able to dispose of much more waste if we simply switched to carrier bags.

I have to hand it the man from the council, he was absolutely right, and because there are still five of us living in our home we’ve used plastic carrier bags for bin liners ever since.

As you can imagine for many years it actually meant that we were saving money. Carrier bags were free at every supermarket, apart from Marks and Spencer who went ‘eco-friendly’ far before they were told they had to, and the bags that we used for our shopping were put to a good use.

This is where my pet hate comes in. There are some shops who shall remain nameless, but if you want your pound to stretch as far as possible you will probably know who I am talking about, who delighted in providing carrier bags of the most abjectly poor quality that the chances were that they were unlikely ever to reach your car in one piece let alone be put to a second purposeful use.

These shops, where you would find plenty of bargains for your home, delighted in selling products with moulded plastic edges or sharp corners that could disintegrate a flimsy carrier bag on first contact.

But pre-carrier bag charges I lived with it. A discount bag was entirely appropriate for a discount retailer.

The point, and my pet hate, is that now you are paying 5p for a carrier bag each time you pop into one of those shops forgetting your ‘bag for life’ why oh why oh why am I still being sold a carrier that is of the same appalling quality I was back in the days when they were free?

A carrier bag at B&M is the same price as one at Waitrose. It’s not a discount product; in fact it’s probably the only thing you can by where Poundland is as expensive as Harrods. So why on earth are they not better quality? I’m getting riled up now.

“Leon”, I hear you telling me “calm down, it’s just a carrier bag. And all the money goes to charity anyway.”

And now you’re getting me really angry because this week the government announced how much money has indeed gone to charity since the introduction of carrier bag charges, and which shops have donated most. It’s not easy reading.

Now there are plenty of retailers like Asda, John Lewis and many more who are very good and who donate all proceeds to charity once administration costs have been deducted.

There are others who keep a significant proportion of the monies raised, for example, WH Smith made £206,000 last year from the sale of single use carrier bags but gave just £132,500 to good causes.

And then there’s Poundstretcher. Last year that discount retailer, in statistics provided by them and published by DEFRA, reported that they had sold more than 6 million carrier bags raising more than £300,000. After VAT and costs net proceeds from the scheme were £249,989.

Do you know what Poundstretcher did with that quarter of a million quid? They kept it.

Poundstretcher are not on their own. A few other retailers don’t donate the proceeds either.
And undoubtedly we need to ask why the biggest beneficiary of the whole scheme are treasury coffers that benefit from the millions collected in additional VAT.

There are many reasonable questions to be asked.

But for God’s sake discount retailers you aren’t discount retailers when it comes to carrier bags. Either improve your quality or have the good grace to give the money raised to charity. Anything else just looks grabby.  

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