Haunted by Plastic Bags

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    How time flies! No matter whether you are having fun or not, apparently. Can you imagine it has been more than two years since Covid first entered our lives? The bothersome shape-shifting devil of a virus might not dominate the news anymore, at least not in our part of the world, but it keeps popping up now and again.

    Meanwhile, here in Sweden, almost daily I get reminded of another annoying two-year-old. It was in January 2020 that the Swedish Parliament voted to approve our famous plastic bags tax, which has since become the very symbol of a symbolic environmental policy. The politicians chose to disregard the scepticism of many sustainability experts as to the tax’s potential benefits, and, voila, the tax came into force in May 2020.

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    By now, I have become accustomed to paying extra for my forgetfulness (where did I put that foldable grocery bag again?), or paying extra to buy poor-quality single-use plastic trash bags. It still bothers me, though, and not just because of my low-paying sustainability job, I assure you.

    Well, it seems like I am not the only one who finds the whole thing rather ineffectual and highly irritating. To ‘celebrate’ the second anniversary, Stockholm-based thinktank EPHI, Environment and Public Health Institute, just published a neat little report on the topic. I struggle to translate the emotive Swedish title, Kass miljöskatt? A relatively free interpretation would perhaps read A miserable failure of an environmental tax?

    EPHI’s mission is to “promote science-based policy rather than policy-based science for a more effective and efficient environment and health policy.” The author of the report, Sofia Höglund, certainly does that, analysing in detail the origins and recent history of the tax only to conclude that its introduction was based on false premises and without an impact assessment and that there is no proof that it works. “Neither the consumption of plastic carrier bags by Swedes nor the amount of plastic carrier bags in nature can justify introducing an excise tax,” writes Höglund.

    Now, don’t get me wrong. When it comes to plastic pollution, I am pretty woke. I even remember the exact moment of my awakening, literally. After dosing off on a long-haul bus crossing Malaysia, I woke up to the view of a field featuring an unfamiliar colourful crop stretching all the way to the horizon, mile after mile. It took me a moment to realise that these exotic plants were, in fact, evenly spread plastic bags entangled in the low vegetation by the wind. I wish I could have captured it on camera, but this was in an era long before Instagram or even mobile phones. The dystopic image has been haunting me ever since, nevertheless.

    I am also highly aware of how efficient regulatory measures can be in fixing the problem when adequately enforced by the authorities. I actually saw it happen almost overnight while living in China in 2008. One week the aunties at the local farmers’ market would laugh at the silly foreigner trying to convince the vendors in broken Chinese not to package each of my purchases in an individual plastic bag. The next, they had joined me in shoving indiscriminately ginger, garlic and chillies in their all-purpose shopping bags on wheels. Having to pay for a plastic bag, even a few measly Mao, made all the difference to these frugal ladies.

    Of course, Swedes have been paying for plastic bags long before the tax was introduced, just not as much. Now the fee has apparently reached a level high enough to produce unexpected adverse effects. In the town where I live, for instance, the authorities are encountering new problems and need to call on residents to “exercise more caution in handling domestic waste”. In case you didn’t know, paper bags cannot be tied properly and are prone to leaking.

    However, this stinky little problem is not my main issue with the plastic bag tax. What I truly detest about it is the way it affects my fellow compatriots’ attitudes toward environmental policy in general. Höglund puts it rather eloquently in her report. “Introducing a tax based on environmental arguments that ultimately has no positive environmental and climate effect risks undermining the confidence in and support for environmental and climate policy.”

    Image by randy7 from Pixabay

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