Thu | Sep 21, 2017

Michael Abrahams: Time to phase out plastic bags

Published:Monday | May 2, 2016 | 5:06 AM

Plastic bags are extremely useful, being used mainly to contain and/or transport a variety of goods and materials. They are utilised in the medical field and for waste disposal, food packaging and other uses.

Globally, approximately one trillion plastic bags are used each year. The most popular bags in Jamaica are what we call ‘scandal bags’, which are used in most shops in the island. But what is scandalous is that in 2016, our country still does not have a policy on plastic, especially plastic bags.

Scandal bags have become ingrained in our culture, and have been used by nearly all Jamaicans. But they do pose environmental risks. Apart from littering the landscape and being an eyesore, they block drains and gullies, contributing to water stagnation, mosquito breeding and flooding. They also end up in our dumps, where they sometimes burn, liberating toxic chemicals, some of them carcinogenic, into the atmosphere.

Also, plastic bags are made from non-renewable resources and contribute to climate change. They are made of materials that are manufactured from petroleum and natural gas, both of which are non-renewable and fossil fuel-based, and through their extraction and production, they create greenhouse gases, which contribute to climate change. Plastic bag production is also very energy intensive. It has been estimated that to produce nine plastic bags, it takes the equivalent energy to drive a car one kilometre.

But the biggest threat that plastic poses is to our oceans. Plastic is not biodegradable, and plastic bags, along with other plastic debris, have contributed to ocean pollution, with devastating results.

It has been estimated that about eight million tons of plastic are dumped in these bodies of water every year, ending up floating on the surface (as ‘garbage patches’), in the ocean depths and even buried in Arctic ice. This equates to about five grocery bags per every foot of coastline around the globe, according to a study published in the journal Science in 2015. To make matters even worse, the tonnage is projected to increase tenfold in the next decade unless ways are found to improve how garbage is collected and managed.

The presence of plastic in our oceans is not just an aesthetic one. Plastic particles are often mistaken for food by marine creatures, causing choking, suffocation, intestinal obstruction, infections, poisoning and entanglement. It is estimated that more than 100,000 marine creatures are killed by plastic debris every year. Some plastics cause hormone disruptions, which can ultimately affect humans who eat seafood affected by plastic and its derivatives.

When one considers that the typical useful life of a plastic bag is about 12 minutes, it becomes obvious that our use of these objects demands re-evaluation. Governments in more than 20 countries, including Rwanda, Uganda, Eritrea, South Africa, China, Brazil and Italy, have taken action to ban the sale of lightweight bags, charge customers for them, and/or generate taxes from their sale.

Bangladesh was the first country to do so, introducing a strict ban in 2002 after floods from 1988 to 1998 submerged two-thirds of the country in water. It was discovered that littered plastic bags contributed significantly to the flooding, hence the drastic action.

It would be reasonable to phase out plastic bags. Successive Jamaican governments have failed to institute policies regarding this, but we do not have to wait on our leaders, who often have misplaced priorities and suffer from chronic myopia, to effect change.

We can start the process ourselves by reducing our consumption of plastic bags. Many times when we shop, we really do not need them. Sometimes we purchase only a few items and are parked just outside the door of the shop, or are returning home or to work within walking distance, and can easily carry the purchased items in our hands. Alternatively, we can use reusable bags, which are now being sold in many shops.

I recently performed an audit of my own use of plastic bags. Over a four-week period, I noted how many times I declined them at shops. I refused the bags a total of 24 times over that period, explaining to the cashiers that it was all about the environment, that my car was parked nearby, and that I would just take the bags home and discard them, following which they would end up in a gully, dump or in the ocean.

Which raises another issue. Cashiers usually do not give consumers the option of not using scandal bags. They usually just place items in them and hand them to shoppers. Those of us who operate supermarkets, grocery stores, pharmacies and other shops should instruct cashiers to ask customers if they want plastic bags. If asked, some may realise that it is not necessary, and decline the offer.

We get from the Earth what we put into it. Failure to respect, nurture and protect our planet will result in dire consequences, especially for future generations. Please share this information with others. We must start our own environmental revolution.