You are also probably aware that "the plastic bag story" has moved far beyond our town as communities up and down the country have followed suit and started similar initiatives of their own.
With the recent proposal from the 33 boroughs of London to try and pursue a similar venture and the Prime Minister's announcement that "we can eliminate single-use disposable bags altogether in favour of long-lasting and more sustainable alternatives", it is clear to myself and the traders of Modbury that the plastic bag debate is way bigger than us now.
As I sit here writing, I have in front of me a letter from Gordon Brown to the Modbury traders. In it he mentions his plans to convene a forum with the supermarkets, the British Retail Consortium and other interested groups to urgently assess how to proceed with the plastic bag issue.
I think it is highly likely that the "other interested groups" Mr Brown refers to will include the plastic bag and packaging manufacturers and it is pretty clear that a ban on single-use plastic bags on environmental grounds is not at the top of their interests
Now that the stakes are a lot higher, it is my fear that the muddying of the waters and the vested interest lobbying will begin in earnest. We have already seen the beginnings of this game appearing in the international press. We had to chuckle here in Modbury when we were accused of "green spin" the other day.
We are not an organisation, we are not lobbyists or a green think tank with an agenda. We are just a small west country farming town whose main points of contact for interested parties are the butcher, the gift shop owner and the lady who runs the art gallery!
I don't want to get into refuting arguments from the plastics manufacturers as that has never been an interest for me, I've just quietly watched this play out. However, there are a couple of recurring fallacies that I've read so many times now that I do feel the need to point them out.
Firstly the idea that because the production of paper bags is arguably more damaging for the environment than the manufacture of plastic bags then banning the latter will do more harm than good. The increase in energy implications etc, are only true if there is a one for one replacement of paper for plastic, in practice this has never happened.
Over the last six months in Modbury, the half a million plastic bags we would normally have issued have not been replaced with half a million paper bags. They have, in fact, been replaced by less than fifty thousand compostable paper and cornstarch bags with the use of re-usable bags allowing the 90 per cent reduction in disposable bag use. Others and myself would like it to go further and not have any disposable carriers, but only time will tell on that.
The second tired old chestnut appears to be a misleading use of the statistics from the Republic of Ireland following the bag levy over there. To quote one plastic bag manufacturer "When Ireland introduced a tax on plastic bags sales went down by 90 per cent, but sales of plastic bin-liners went up by 400 per cent." On the face of it this seems to show the bag levy was a bad thing. However, it is always worth checking the numbers.
The "400 per cent" figure appears to be an honest mistake as the actual increase in bin liner sales in Ireland was closer to 77 per cent. But, what do these figures really mean? Well they mean this:
- A 90 per cent reduction in plastic check-out bag usage resulted in an estimated 1.15 billion less plastic bags being given away at the checkout every year.
- The 77 per cent increase in kitchen bin liner sales increased the amount sold by an estimated maximum of 70 million plastic bags.
Therefore there is an overall reduction in plastic bag usage of over 1.08 billion plastic bags.
Even if the "400 per cent" figure were correct it would still mean an overall reduction in plastic bag usage of 750 million in one year.
Anyway, enough numbers. I just wanted to point out that things shouldn't be taken at face value. The plastic bag debate is only going to get more heated and you should not blindly accept the facts from the plastics people any more or less than you should unquestioningly accept the facts from me.
I may have inadvertently become the country's leading expert on how to convince small town in South Devon called Modbury to stop issuing plastic bags but I am not one of the top world experts on the environmental impacts of disposable plastic. However, I have been in constant contact with those experts for nearly three years now.
From reading vast amounts of scientific literature and from what I have personally witnessed, I am pretty confident that what I've relayed to the media is correct to the best of my knowledge.
But I've been longing for the journalists to go past me, and start talking directly to the scientists about the global marine plastics issue. These guys are way more knowledgeable than me. They have lifetime careers in this field and have the peer review process to back them up.
The plastic bag manufacturers and other groups opposed to curbing our use of these disposable items may well have some legitimate arguments but the only responsible way for these to be presented is as independent peer reviewed scientific studies. At least that way we can be reasonably certain that there is a level playing field.
As for Modbury we do feel a little like the child who pointed out the Emperor's new clothes. It has woken up the nation and the plastics industry can scream blue murder but the very polite answer from us all here is "we're sorry but we simply don't need that product anymore".
However, if I walk along any of the beaches in my local area I realise how little I have done. There is so much throwaway plastic littering the shores, plastic bags are just the tip of a huge problem and I feel as though I've achieved virtually nothing. I'm just one person who spoke out and tried to make a little change in my local community in the hope they would understand and see what was happening.
On that level it has worked. Our little story obviously hit a national chord and we're thrilled so many communities are choosing to follow but now, to secure real national change or at least a truly balanced debate, we need listen to all those scientists who have no financial interests in the outcome.
No says David Tyson, Chief Executive, Packaging and Films Association
We all like to do our best for the environment but the country has been swept up in a fever of contempt for plastic bags based on myth, misunderstanding and misinformation. This is dangerous not just for the environment but for science and democracy.
Today's "ban the bag" calls resemble the baying crowds of yesteryear waiting at the gallows. Yet in this case, the clamour for a public execution is taking place without a fair trial.
If someone takes the trouble to look at facts above fiction, there is no justification for killing off of a highly efficient, functional, convenient, re-usable and recyclable product. Such moves contradict scientific evidence and expert opinion. Irrational hysteria is replacing responsible environmental management and will do more damage to our planet.
Two years of evidence to the Scottish Parliament led to a unanimous, all-party acceptance that more waste is created if we take punitive action against plastic bags. It also highlighted the fact that plastic bags represent less than 1 per cent of litter on our streets.
Plastic bags do not cause litter, people do. Blaming plastic bags for litter is just a stunt which diverts us from the real task of educating towards a more responsible social attitude across all environmental areas.
Less than 0.3per cent of domestic waste going to landfill comprises plastic bags of ALL type. In fact, most free plastic carrier bags end up in landfill only because they are the best way to get rid of our household waste.
Government research shows that four out of five households re-use plastic carriers - typically for the safe and hygienic disposal of putrescible and malodorous waste. This includes the containment of dog droppings and cat litter.
The most recent independent research showed that 59 per cent of us re-use ALL of our plastic carriers. This is why describing the Irish plastic bag tax as a success is nonsense.
Official import statistics show that more plastic bags are being used after the tax than before it as people had to switch to buying bin bags. Many retailers also increased packaging on the shelves to replace the hygiene protection that the plastic bag gives.
Nor is it true that plastic bags are a significant waste of oil reserves. Just 0.2per cent of oil feedstock is used for plastic carrier bags and even this small amount is made by borrowing the by-products of oil refining which would otherwise be flared-off.
So, for as long as we extract oil for industry and heating (39 per cent) and transport (27 per cent), it makes sense to use its waste products. And don't forget that once we have used this plastic, we can recycle it into long-life products such as council litter bins and weather-proof park benches. Surely this is exemplary environmental practice.
In the reduce, re-use, recycle hierarchy, the plastic bag has a better score than all so-called environmentally-friendly alternatives - provided we keep on re-using it.
Life cycle analyses of paper, as a replacement for plastic bags, show that far greater pollution occurs in their manufacture and transportation across the globe than plastic which is ten times lighter and thinner.
Similar concerns apply to shipping heavy and bulky cotton bags from Asia - and environmentalists should have serious reservations about the working conditions in which they are made.
It's also ironic that so many up-market paper carrier bags are waterproofed with a lining or coating of plastic. Examination of a recent nationwide give-away of 'eco-friendly'cotton bags showed that a large quantity of plastic was used to reinforce the handles - far more plastic than in a free supermarket bag!
Most importantly, paper, cotton and jute bags will one day rot away to give off CO2 and methane - unlike plastic which eventually just crumbles to a fine, inert, non-toxic powder.
So-called degradable plastic bags are not a universal panacea either. They break the first rule of sustainability because they are made to be deliberately allowed to go to waste.
The chances are they will also degrade to create greenhouse gases in landfill and, unless we can create separated waste collection of plastics, these materials could seriously contaminate our existing plastic recycling schemes.
Nothing is simple when it comes to environmental impact assessments but the frenetic green arguments against plastic are simplistic to the point of being irresponsible.
Plastic bags account for around 2kg of the average 11 tonnes of carbon emissions each of us generates every year. We blame plastic bags for killing marine creatures yet wouldn't dream of banning motor cars implicated in the large scale daily slaughter of native wildlife.
We are told by London's local authorities that 90 per cent of the city's population want a carrier bag ban but this is based on less than 2000 comments out of a total of 7m Londoners - less than two hundredths of 1 per cent of the city.
Such dual standards and the falsification of real facts is now endemic in the greenwash which daily threatens our democratic right to the truth and our freedom to judge the facts for ourselves.
Packaging and Films Association
Massing in their millions, crucified and shredded on barbed wire fences, plastic bags have come to be dubbed "roadside daisies" in South Africa. Some now even mournfully refer to them as the country's national flower. Thousands of miles away in the metaphorical plughole at the heart of the Pacific Ocean, a spinning mass of plastic detritus, which includes countless carrier bags hanging limp in the water like jellyfish, revolves in perpetuity. And in China, which last year saw the closure of one of the world's largest plastic-bag factories, with the loss of 20,000 jobs, due to the government's concern about "white pollution", an estimated 300m carrier bags are still handed out to shoppers every day.
Plastic bags are one of the most recognisable symbols of our modern throwaway culture. In the decades since their introduction – the first plastic "baggies" for bread, sandwiches and fruit were introduced in the US in 1957 – their use has become ubiquitous across the planet. One million are handed out every minute, according to We Are What We Do, the not-for-profit group that was the driving force behind the Anya Hindmarch-designed "I'm Not A Plastic Bag" reusable carrier that briefly – and somewhat ironically – became a must-have accessory in 2007. It has long been the instinctive reflex of the shop assistant to place the items we buy into a plastic bag – and, equally, it has been our instinctive reflex to accept them. Very few of us ever questioned the logic or implications of such a mundane exchange. But in recent years, the unsightly and growing presence of these bags across our collective environment has led to a global movement to restrict their use – and, in some cases, calls for their outright ban.
According to reports yesterday, the Welsh Assembly is the latest government to consider outlawing the free distribution of plastic bags in shops. Jane Davidson, the Welsh environment minister, said that many shoppers were still failing "to embrace the environmental message" despite a raft of measures by supermarkets and other retailers to encourage us to use fewer of them. One solution now being given serious consideration by the Welsh authorities is the introduction of a 15p levy on every plastic or paper bag handed out to shoppers in the principality. Any revenue raised would be ring-fenced for local environmental projects, the minister said. (She also admitted that a small number of shoppers might be tempted to shop across the border in England to escape the tax.)
Evidence from across the world suggests that such a politically bold move would produce a dramatic drop in the number of bags being used each year in Wales. In 2002, Ireland introduced a 15 euro cents tax on each plastic bag – the so-called "plastax" – and within a few months a 90% reduction in the number of bags being used had been recorded. In total, the tax is thought to have led to a billion fewer bags being used each year in Ireland. The tax persuaded shoppers to bring their own reusable bags with them on shopping trips, or to request far fewer bags at the checkout.
But the scheme has had its critics. While it was true that the tax led to a dramatic drop in the number of bags being handed out in shops, it also triggered a 400% increase in the number of bin liners and black refuse bags being purchased. The tax also encouraged an increased reliance on paper bags which, according to a number of life-cycle analysis studies that have compared the environmental performance of various types of bags, require more energy to manufacture and release more greenhouse gases when degrading following their disposal. And while it is commonly accepted that plastic bags are a genuine blot on the landscape (and seascape), they only represent a tiny fraction of the waste stream by weight or by volume. For example, in the US they account for less than half a percent of domestic refuse.
The implication – expressed or otherwise – of such criticism is that we are either largely wasting our time pursuing such tactics in attempting to eradicate plastic bags, or that we are allowing ourselves to be distracted by what is, relatively speaking, a fairly minor environmental woe. James Lovelock, the climate scientist, has referred to the current obsession with plastic bags as "rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic". Patting ourselves on the back about how few plastic bags we each now use allows us to ignore far more pressing environmental issues such as, say, climate change, overpopulation, rapid species extinction and the depletion of resources such as fresh water. Today's war on plastic bags is certainly worth fighting, but not if it is at the expense of these other concerns.
"It's the carbon content of what goes into your plastic bags, not the plastic bags themselves, that we should be worrying about," says Chris Goodall, the author of How to Live a Low Carbon Life, and Ten Technologies to Save the Planet. "This is 100% more important than, say, the amount of oil used to make one plastic bag. Plastic bags are a litter issue – yes, they certainly cause great damage to marine life – but they are frequently seen as a carbon issue. They are not. They are an easy target because they are one of the most visible environmental problems. But this doesn't make them the most important environmental issue. Many assume that recycling is the answer to the waste problem, rather than simply consuming less. It's not an easy message for many people to accept. Worrying about plastic bags also gives the illusion that small steps make a difference. This kind of radical change in thinking will take a generation."
Goodall says that the various efforts to reduce the use of plastic bags – be it through government legislation or the voluntary efforts (spurred on by high-profile campaigns by the likes of the Daily Mail) by supermarkets to reduce their customers' reliance on such bags – are invariably littered with unintended consequences. As has been seen in Ireland, plastic bag taxes often lead to a rise in the number of bin liners being purchased. "This plastic is much thicker and will prove to be a greater environmental hazard than thin plastic bags," he says.
The widespread belief that biodegradable "plastic" bags made from, say vegetable starch, are the panacea is also misguided, says Goodall. "I've still got a load of these bags sitting at the bottom of my allotment two years later."
And introducing a plastic bag ban or tax doesn't necessarily produce lasting results. In 2007, the Irish authorities were forced to increase their bag tax to 22 euro cents after the number of bags being used each year by every citizen rose from 21 to 31. (However, before the tax was introduced, the Irish were, on average, each using 328 bags a year.)
There are also growing rumbles of concern in San Francisco, which, in 2007, became the first city in the US to introduce a plastic bag ban. An investigation by the San Francisco Weekly earlier this year found that in the period since the ban was introduced there had actually been a slight rise in the number of plastic bags picked up off the city's streets.
All eyes are now on Seattle. In a week's time [18 August], its citizens will get to vote on whether to introduce a 20-cent levy on plastic bags. It represents one of the first occasions when an electorate has been asked if it wants such a levy rather than having it imposed on them by elected politicians. It's currently too close to call, but the lobbying for both sides of the argument has been intense. One local paper reported this week that the American Chemistry Council, the lobbying arm of the plastic industry that includes members such as Dow Chemical, ExxonMobil and some of the leading plastic-bag producers, had already spent almost $1.4m trying to defeat the bag tax, whereas environmental groups had raised about $80,000. As a result, some of the "yes" camp are now trying to dress up the battle as a vote against the influence of big oil.
But while Seattle's levy might not quite be in the bag just yet, there is already talk in some quarters about how an outright ban on all plastic bags is the ultimate goal. Haf Elgar, a campaigner for Friends of the Earth Cymru, welcomes the moves by the Welsh Assembly to consider a plastic bag levy, but believes the next logical step would be a complete ban. "Yes, we would support such a step," she says. "Charging, say, 15p for a bag is a great disincentive and a first step, but, ultimately, we all need to be bringing reusable bags with us to the shops."
Perhaps we need a dose of even more radical thinking: how about a tax on leaving home without a reusable bag? Think this is going too far? Earlier this year, a Beijing-based ecologist provoked a torrent of online abuse and ridicule when his suggestion – that tree planting be funded by a levy on individuals and businesses – was interpreted in media reports as a tax on breathing.
• This article was amended on 12 August 2009 to clarify that while the scientist, Jiang Youxu, proposed an environmental tax on businesses and carbon-producing city dwellers, he did not propose – as our original article said – a tax on breathing. This has been corrected.