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CAPRI | Towards eliminating 'scandal' bags

Published:Sunday | November 26, 2017 | 12:00 AM
Reusable bags like this one are now being used by some major retailers as a replacement for single-use plastic bagsomers.
Concept art of a PriceSmart reusable bag.

Jamaica is currently progressing towards joining the growing number of countries which, acknowledging an environmental threat, are either banning single-use plastic bags, or imposing a charge on their purchase. The issue of improper plastic bag disposal is exacerbated, here, by the limited capacity for solid waste disposal.

While recycling these bags is a possibility, it is not cost-effective. Indeed, most recycling facilities are set up to handle predominately rigid materials that are easier to separate using machinery like aluminium cans, glass bottles, plastic containers and lids, metal cans, cardboard/paper, etc. Moreover, when recycled, the bags often get stuck in recycling machinery, adding to maintenance costs.

The current steps

In Jamaica, both the business community and the government are taking steps to address the problem of plastic bag waste. The Senate approved, in October 2016, a motion to look at the possibility of imposing a ban (or other policy measure) to reduce the presence of single use plastic bags and styrofoam, which led to the creation of a working group to develop a policy framework. This group will be revealing its conclusions by the end of 2017. Manufacturers have been coming up with alternatives and some businesses have been reducing their use of the traditional 'scandal' bags.


Reusable bags


Major retailer PriceSmart is known for its non-distribution of single-use plastic bags and instead, offering reusable bags to its customers. In 2015 restaurant chain Island Grill traded its plastic containers and bags, for the more environmentally friendly paperboard and paper bag, respectively. During a stakeholder consultation, however, a number of local retailers expressed the challenges they experienced in taking steps to reduce single-use plastic bag usage. They distributed reusable shopping bags to customers, but these customers seldom returned to stores with the shopping bags and continued to rely on the single-use plastic bags distributed in-store.

Charge vs ban

With a requirement for consumers to pay for each plastic bag they use at the shop (bags which were previously free), they are less likely to throw the plastic bags after one use and may instead reuse the bags or bring their own reusable ones. Charges are imposed mainly by having a requirement by law for retailers to charge customers, or by imposing a tax on plastic bags resulting in retailers passing the cost onto customers.

In general, the implementation of a bag charge is accompanied by the promotion of, and increased availability of more sustainable alternatives such as reusable shopping bags and biodegradable ones. Following the introduction of a 5-pence charge (JMD 8.40) on shoppers for single use plastic bags in 2015, England experienced an 85 per cent drop in plastic bag usage within six months.

Wales saw as much as a 96 per cent decline since the imposition of a tax on plastic bags, while Scotland saw a fall in the consumption by 80 per cent [1].

A ban will reduce plastic bag use almost entirely (over several years) as it makes the sale and use of the bags illegal. It can however, result in significant resistance, particularly from retailers. Its implementation is usually accompanied by the introduction of more sustainable alternatives, much like in the implementation of plastic bag charges.


Trend setters


In July 2016, Antigua and Barbuda became the first Caribbean nation to impose a ban on plastic bags. The country prohibited the importation and use of plastic bags except for those used for garbage collection, with the government pledging to distribute 120,000 reusable bags. Prior to the implementation of the ban, the Cabinet decided to waive taxes and duties on the importation of reusable shopping bags to encourage supermarkets to support the initiative and make the bags more affordable. The move was embraced by major supermarkets who joined the government in distributing one reusable bag to each customer.

Towards a policy framework

Placing taxes or charges on single-use plastic bags is a market-based approach to incentive's customers to alter their own behaviour. On the other hand, outright bans change behaviour by removing that choice, thereby bringing greater resistance (from both consumers and manufacturers) and other negative side-effects.

CAPRI invites the public to a policy discussion, which will be held on December 6, 2017, at 6:00 p.m., at the Spanish Court Hotel's Worthington Building. This forum will provide a platform for CAPRI, as well as the government's working group on plastic bags and styrofoam containers, to present their recommendations and gather feedback. The panel will include Dr. Parris Lyew-Ayee (MGI) and Mr. Anthony McKenzie (NEPA), both members of the working group. You can RSVP to, or 970-2910.