It's now been four months since the government introduced a 5p tax on plastic carrier bags. And it's completely changed the way I shop, particularly food shopping, just not in the way I was expecting.
Large supermarket within walking distance of home
Small convenient supermarket on my commute home
Up until a few years back I used to do most of my food shopping at Supermarket A, as it offered the largest range of comestible merchandise in the immediate vicinity. But when Supermarket B opened up at the local petrol station, I switched most of my custom there. Supermarket B offered a wide enough range of staples to get me through the week, plus I could pop in on the way home from work which was considerably more convenient. I think it was cheaper too, although that might just have been an illusion created by visiting more regularly and buying less each time. I still visited Supermarket A occasionally to top up on those things that Supermarket B didn't stock, but not very often, my loyalty essentially swung by convenience.
And I thought that would be how it'd continue from October. A plastic bag is a plastic bag is a plastic bag, so surely the imposition of a 5p tax wouldn't make much difference. But no, it turns out I've completely transferred my grocery shopping back to Supermarket A, indeed I don't think I've stepped inside Supermarket B once this year.
One thing that did it for me was the tills. At Supermarket A the tills are big, and there's plenty of space, and I get to pack the bags for myself. But at supermarket B the tills are small, and there isn't room for me to pack the bags, indeed the process requires the checkout staff to fill the bags on my behalf. And this is where the plastic bag tax started to make things unexpectedly difficult.
I'd been intent on never paying for a plastic bag, because that's the point, a total waste of 5p coins when I have a bundle of plastic bags at home. So I needed to bring my own, indeed that's what I did, I packed my pockets with plastic bags and brought some with me. I even made sure they were specifically plastic bags from Supermarket B, for purely passive reasons, despite the fact that a bag is a bag is a bag. I didn't want the awkwardness of handing over bags from Supermarket A, or even two from C and one from D, for fear the checkout staff might be unimpressed. Ridiculous I know, but I knew the process would be easier if I played the game.
But not that easy. There came a point, every time I visited Supermarket B, when the question of how I was going to bag my goods came up. Before October it was easy, it just happened, but now the checkout staff actually had to ask me how things should proceed. "Do you have any bags?" "Why yes I do, here they are." Or even "Do you have any bags?" "Yes, did you not see them, did I not make them obvious enough for you?" Or in the worst case scenario "Hang on, I've brought some bags, please stop putting my shopping into new ones."
I didn't enjoy suddenly being the bag man, fishing out scrunched up plastic from my pocket and handing it over to the checkout staff to fill. It felt like I was being judged, in part by the checkout staff themselves, and also by those in the queue behind. And this is obviously ridiculous, because recycling bags is what we're all supposed to be doing now. But other people didn't particularly seem to be recycling, they were paying fivepence a time for convenience, and the staff didn't seem especially keen on being given crinkly second hand bags to handle. Most of all this new process added undue unscripted unpredictable faff every time I went to Supermarket B, so I stopped going. And all because of the narrow-width tills.
And also because of the bags themselves. Because it's not actually possible to recycle a plastic bag unless you take one with you.
I've not been good at taking bags with me. I thought it would be easier, and indeed sometimes it is. If I know what I'm doing in advance I stuff my pockets with plastic bags before I go out, and hey presto I have them with me when I want to buy something later. But this seemingly obvious process can go wrong in a number of ways whenever I engage in unscheduled shopping, and then I'm stuffed.
Firstly I have only limited space in my pockets, so I have to plan ahead and try to guess what I might need. If I'm going food shopping I take supermarket carriers, and if I'm going near a High Street I take something more substantial. That's fine if I know what I'm doing, or only do one or the other, but more of a mess if I mix and match. Department store carrier bags aren't ideal in supermarkets, they're not built for groceries and they look a bit smug. Likewise supermarket carrier bags don't look good in department stores, they're the wrong size and they look a bit cheapskate. Turn up unexpectedly at the wrong place with the wrong kind of bag and recycling's not on.
Secondly I keep forgetting to replace my bags. It's all very well going to the supermarket and recycling my bags, but when I get home and empty their contents I forget the crucial stage which follows. What I should do is take the empty bags, fold them up and re-insert them into the pockets from whence they came. Except I don't yet know which coat or trousers I'll be wearing next time I go shopping, so instead I leave the bags out somewhere in the hope I'll remember. But when I leave the house next time round I invariably forget to add them back in, and hey presto, my recycling plans are dead.
Thirdly I'm not someone who carries a big bag round with them every time I go out. Some of you need somewhere to stash your make-up, iPad, water bottle, chargers, gym shorts or whatever, and you can hide excess plastic bags at the bottom of your bag ready for use whenever. I only sometimes carry a rucksack, and even then I keep imagining there are plastic bags at the bottom when in fact I've used them all up. Instead I generally rely on pockets, and there's a limit to what you can cram into those unless you want to look like you're peculiarly obese or phenomenally well endowed. At least the bag tax was implemented in the autumn which means I've had twice as many pockets to fill, whereas recycling in the summer using trouser pockets only is going to be a genuine challenge.
I'm aware that I could solve all my problems by carrying one of those large capacious hessian-type bags with me everywhere I go. This would be big enough to put a reasonable number of groceries into, and it'd also solve the problem at the miniature Supermarket B checkout, because the checkout staff would easily see it and not feel awkward about having to fill it. But I have no intention of keeping an unwieldy receptacle on me at all times, not just because it wouldn't fold down to easy pocket-size but also because most of the time it would be wholly unnecessary. Why submit to permanent inconvenience for a bulky solution that might make half an hour a week more pleasant?
And the end result of all of this is that I keep finding myself in shopping situations without having fully prepared myself with bags. This brake on impulse buying threatens to occur on those occasions when I didn't leave the house expecting to buy X, Y and Z, but suddenly the opportunity arises. Normally I'd go ahead and buy them, or at least take a look and think about it. But in Bag Tax World my brain says "Don't do that, it'll cost you 5p extra!" so I don't. No matter that 5p is almost irrelevant in the grand scheme of things, cash-wise, the very fact that I could come back tomorrow and buy the thing for less stops me from buying it today.
And this is why I'm now frequenting Supermarket A at the expense of Supermarket B. Previously I'd have popped into Supermarket B on my way home from work without a thought. But now I approach Supermarket B and think "Ah, I could just pop in there for..." and then stop myself from thinking that because I haven't brought any bags. My fridge isn't so empty that I need to stop for provisions, so I walk on by and survive on what I've got. Then once a week I make a deliberate visit to a supermarket, starting well-prepared from home, so obviously I go to Supermarket A because it has a considerably wider choice of goods.
The bag tax has unintentionally encouraged me to plan my shopping, rather than winging it, so I shop less frequently and buy in bulk. Hence Supermarket A now gets my custom, not Supermarket B, a decision I'm making not on brand but on size of store. Damn those narrow tills.