An Obsession with Plastic – A tale of two cities

On the 5th of October 2015, all UK retail chains with more than 250 employees became obligated by law to charge £0.05 ($0.07) for each single-use plastic bag that a customer uses.


Because, on average, every single man, woman, and child in the UK were using 140 bags every year.  And usage was increasing.

For the most part, chains approached this problem by allowing customers to purchase either a cheap carrier bag at £0.05p or a re-usable bag at up to £0.20.  Chains also generally reduced the quality and size of the cheaper bags.

At first people complained and got upset when picking up a few things from their local shop.  5p is an inconsequential amount of money, but the fact that it was there and that it was explicitly called out in every transaction, evoked a fairly strong emotional response.

And then it became the norm.  People coped in different ways.  Some:

  • brought in their already-used bags;
  • purchased purpose-made bags which they could keep on their person;
  • carried their goods ‘au natural’ (which feels a little like shoplifting if you ask me);
  • bought the £0.05 bags and just accepted to cost; or
  • bought the £0.20 bags and stuffed them fuller than your uncle on Thanksgiving.

But did it work?  Did this almost irrelevant charge fundamentally change consumer and retail behaviour for the better?

You bet it did!

Plastic carrier bag usage then and now

The number of bags used dropped from 7.6 billion per annum to 1.1 billion.  That’s an 85% reduction in single-use carrier bags, with the remaining 15% raising £29.2 million for charities and good causes.

Now – New York.

Plastic.  Is.  Everywhere.

When you buy groceries, everything is double bagged by default (cashiers will pre-double bags in-between customers), and the bags are huge.

I’ve gone to the local supermarket for a small amount of stuff, and walked out with 6 plastic bags.

It feels wrong, and to put things in perspective this is how New York City’s carrier bag consumption compares to that of the entire United Kingdom.

UK and New York Annual Carrier Bag Usage

That’s right, the City of New York with a population of 8.5 million consumes more single-use plastic bags than the entire United Kingdom.  That’s 1,102 bags per person per annum.

Now, to be fair, New York knows it has a problem.  Mayor Bill de Blasio had tried to introduce a 5c fee in the City of New York, but this was blocked earlier this year by the state Govoner Andrew M. Cuomo.  Why?  Because:

  • it was seen as an unfair tax on the poor;
  • state legislators were unhappy that the 5c could be retained by the vendors; and
  • Cuomo wants a state-wide implementation.

There’s a deadline for the end of this year for a report and draft legislation for state wide implementation, but with politicians arguing about 3c versus 5c I’m not holding my breath.

In the meantime, we’ve taken a more active position on refusing baggage when not needed, asking for a single bag instead of double bagging, taking a re-usable bag when we’re going shopping, and using any single-use-bags we get as our garbage bags.

Marketing gone wild – Creepy Balloons and a Joke

On one of our wanders down-town we spotted this:

Netflix is a Joke

So either someone really hates Netflix, or this is the start of a viral marketing campaign.

Dissapointingly it seems to be the latter – they are going to evolve to promote Netflix’s comedic lineup.

Later that evening we spotted this:

Viral Marketing for Stephen King’s “IT”

Now that’s a creepy sight!

Pricing Transparency – the hidden cost of everything

Everything that you see in New York (and in most of the United States) costs more than the sticker price.  For goods and services this mainly comes down to sales tax, but there are some extra gotchyas.  Observe:

Total purchase price for a 12 pack of Diet Coke in the US and the UK

You walk into a store expecting to pay $7.99 for a twelve pack of Coke, and you walk out having paid $9.30.

Now there are a couple of subtleties here, namely:

  • For the most part, stores do not present the different state and city taxes separately (instead using a single 8.875% rate); and
  • In theory, you should be able to claim back the bottle deposit (this in itself will be a different post).

Now let’s go deeper.  Let’s say I need to get a haircut:

Paying for a haircut in the US and UK

Services are taxed differently to goods, as only the City Sales tax applies.  In the UK these services are charged at the same 20% VAT rate (which must be included in the sticker price).

To add further confusion, if you are buying clothing or footwear under $110, you pay no sales tax.  Bought something for $111?  Be ready to add an extra $8.50 to the bill.

Let’s also not get into what happens when you cross state lines (I’m kidding – I will!).

Hello World

If you have found this site, there is a very significant chance that you’re either a:

  • friend that I’ve spammed; or
  • family member wondering if I’m still alive; or
  • potential employer digging up dirt; or
  • by some miracle, someone who is moving to the USA that has been looking for other’s experience.

Let’s be clear – I make no promises about this site.  Updates are likely to be infrequent, the content sloppy and full of spilling mistakes, and the topics will be dull and/or unispiring.

Anyway – a bit about me.

I’ve recently (this month) moved to the United States of America, and this is my second stint as an expat.  I moved from London, England, where I had spent 14 years living in the centre of the capital.  I worked there, did my masters, and fell in love with an amazing American.  I was born and raised in Australia, where family still resides (Hi Mum!).

Why the blog?  I’m perplexed.  There are so many things that I see every day that make me wonder “how did this come to be”, “why isn’t this like it is in the UK/AU”, and “why didn’t I think of this”.  This site is my attempt to document the learning process of integrating into a new culture, and an impetus for me to actually research into why things be the way they be.

Tag along if you’d like, and comment if I get things wrong.  I’m here to learn.