Challenges could undermine success of plastic bag ban
The following is a contribution from the Caribbean Policy Research Institute.
The announcement by Daryl Vaz, minister Without portfolio in the Ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation, of a ban on single-use plastic bags (scandal bags), plastic straws, and styrofoam containers, effective January 1, 2019 has rightfully been celebrated across the country as a step forward in protecting Jamaica's natural environment and building a more sustainable Jamaica.
The Caribbean Policy Research Institute (CAPRI) has, in the past year, completed reports making policy recommendations on plastics and recycling, including a study on measures to address plastic bag pollution in December 2017. CAPRI welcomes the Government's initiative, but we are concerned that there are inherent challenges in a ban that are likely to undermine its success. These challenges include resistance from manufacturers, the emergence of a black market, and difficulty in enforcing the ban, all of which have presented themselves in other countries, including India, China and Somalia, that have attempted to ban plastic bags in an effort to combat plastic pollution.
CAPRI's original recommendation was to impose a fee on plastic bags as the first step in a medium-term plan to gradually phase them out. This approach has had tremendous success in several countries around the world. Instead of banning scandal bags, such a policy would require that large retailers impose a charge of about J$10 per bag, at the point of sale, directly to the customer. By obliging consumers to pay for each plastic bag, something which they have never had to pay for, they are likely to use fewer bags, reuse or bring their own. There is also an important element of consciousness-raising that comes with attaching a fee to a plastic bag: it brings environmental awareness to the forefront of daily life, and can promote behaviour change with regard to other aspects of environment-related behaviour
This fee system has proved to be efficient all over the world. Plastic bag fees enabled England to reduce its usage of plastic bags by 85 per cent within only six months of the implementation of a £0.05 charge (J$9). Similar charges have been implemented in Wales and Scotland, and there has been a subsequent decrease in use of plastic bags by 96 per cent and 80 per cent, respectively, within the first year of implementation. These fees were imposed directly on the customer. Denmark chose a slightly different scheme: they pass the cost of the plastic bags on to the retailer, who can choose how to account for he extra cost. The direct method has, however, showed significantly higher reduction rates.
Bans attempted in many countries
Bans have been attempted in many countries. As early as 2002 Bangladesh's ban significantly reduced single-use plastic bag circulation for a year, after which plastic bag use, and the accompanying ill effects, returned to pre-ban levels. In Kenya, manufacturers' pushback was so strong that both attempts at a total ban, in 2007 and 2011, failed. In 2017, Kenya again attempted the ban, imposing the world's strictest law against plastic pollution: anyone producing, selling or even using plastic bags will risk imprisonment of up to four years or fines of US$40,000. It is too soon to gauge if this third effort will succeed.
One of the few countries that has successfully banned plastic bags is Rwanda where, since 2006, the policy has been enforced by sustained and robust checks and the imposition of fines, which are still necessary as, over 10 years after the ban's implementation, there is a thriving black market for non-biodegradable plastic bags. Our Caribbean neighbour Antigua banned plastic bags in 2016, but the country has experienced mixed results thus far. Large supermarkets and businesses have been conforming, but compliance among smaller retailers has been problematic.
For the ban to have any chance of success in Jamaica, significant resources will have to be dedicated to enforcement, and to managing manufacturer and retailer pushback. Fees have been proven to have much greater success without the resource expenditure that a ban requires. Nevertheless, a ban is better than no policy at all, and the present decision remains a positive move for Jamaica.
Whether opting for a ban or a fee, certain steps cannot be circumvented for either initiative to succeed. Education is critical to addressing the issues associated with plastic bag use. Public awareness will indeed help to shape the attitudes of citizens to become more supportive of the measures put in place towards eliminating the risks (health, environment, etc) associated with plastic bag pollution. Alternatives also need to be made readily available, and widely promoted. Additionally, the alternatives must be cost-effective to ensure compliance among retailers. Finally, robust penalties and the enforcement of such penalties are crucial to ensuring that all actors conform to the requirements of the framework.
With four months to go before the end of the year, one can question whether these necessary alternatives will be rolled out, adequately resourced, and sufficiently promoted, and whether an extensive and effective public awareness campaign will be initiated.
CAPRI is committed to doing its part in making the ban a success, including by providing further recommendations to mitigate the foreseeable challenges. In related arenas across the Caribbean, CAPRI is actively working, with the Caribbean2030 Leaders' Network (an organisation of which CAPRI is a founding member) towards putting in place policies to eliminate plastic waste across the entire region. We consider Jamaica's bold initiative here to be an important step, from which our Caribbean neighbours and we can learn, as we move towards a more sustainable future.