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Archive for the ‘Penang’ Category

Moving Towards a Change in Lifestyle – No Plastic Bags

Several years ago I used to stockpile used plastic bags from supermarkets, with the intention of sending them for recycling. Then a friend pointed out to me that such plastic bags were bio-degradable (actually, photo-degradable) and all my collecting was for naught. She was right. As the years went by plastic bags became thinner and quickly changed composition after exposure to air. They become flimsy constructs – a single touch and they break apart into tiny pieces. Pieces that are tough to clean up as they stick to rags, fingers and the inside of a vacuum cleaner. I still have a drawer full of stored plastic bags that I’m hesitant to open in case a gust of wind breaks them into pieces. This decomposition happens in stages by the way, I wouldn’t recommend you experiment at home.

These plastic bags used to come in handy for throwing rubbish, but due to their deterioration I had no choice now but to buy the black/blue/green plastic bags sold in supermarkets. What was I to do now? I can’t recycle them. I can’t use them. I hate just throwing them out with the garbage because it is so wasteful. I don’t even like that plastic bag usage is so dominant in our society – I’m strongly anti-plastic/Styrofoam/polystyrene. At one of the places where I worked I brought my own bowl to takeaway food from the nearby restaurant.

So the only solution left was to change my lifestyle to reduce the number of useless bags lying around the house. For years I’ve been following the lifestyle of ‘only buying what I can carry’ because I conveniently find myself near a supermarket every few days. Sometimes when I buy many items, or items that can’t mix I do use plastic bags. I often keep a scrunched-up bag in my pocket for such situations. These lifestyle changes have effectively removed the problem I used to have.

No Plastic Bag Day Campaign

In Selangor/KL, IKEA set an example by charging for all plastic bags in June 2009, with the proceeds going to the Malaysian Nature Society. This was part of its commitment to phase out plastic bags at all its outlets worldwide, initiated in March 2007. This was followed by Village Grocer since August 2009 that gave an option of getting a used free plastic bag, or paying for a new plastic bag. Cold Storage made the bizarre move of banning plastic bags on Thursdays, forcing customers to buy a canvas/polymer bag or use their own. For shoppers caught unawares at the cashier this seems like cruel punishment. Why buy a bag that can last for years, just because you forgot to bring your own? I have personally witnessed angry customers demanding they be given the option of a plastic bag rather than buy a bag. I learned my lesson after a few visits – don’t visit Cold Storage on Thursdays.

In July 2009 Penang government started a ‘No Plastic Bag’ campaign, implemented as a tax on businesses, with the proceeds going towards welfare. Retailers had to start charging customers 20 sen for plastic bags and starting 2010 the state government made it mandatory for retail outlets to adopt ‘No Plastic Bag Mondays’ or ‘No Plastic Three Days (Mon-Wed)’.

This month the Selangor government started a similar campaign for Saturdays and is considering making it mandatory like in Penang. I guess the Penang campaign started on weekdays to ‘test the waters’ and now that Selangor has seen the good reception there its safe to start with Saturdays where the consumer base is larger.

Unfortunately the campaign implementation in Selangor is left up to the supermarket, so the proceeds from sales of plastic bags are not guaranteed to go towards welfare. No wonder so many stores are eager to sign up, it’s a no-brainer for them because they can earn profit from previously free bags! You can read about how major supermarkets implemented it at this blog.

No Plastic Bags? Are They Crazy?

The name ‘No Plastic Bag’ sends a mixed message. As the unlucky customers of Cold Storage found out, one message is fear. The Penang and Selangor state governments had to clarify that they don’t mean to ban plastic bags completely, just reduce their usage. They want to promote reusable bags as an alternative to plastic bags, hence ‘no plastic bag’.

Couldn’t they come up with a less scary campaign title though? I know ‘No Plastic Bag, Reuse Bags Instead’ and ‘Less Plastic Bag Day’ aren’t catchy alternatives and given time people will understand. My first reaction to the campaign title was shock, because I don’t want to live in a future where I’m told to go home and get my own bag (because the store doesn’t provide any)!

We are right to fear a ban on plastic bags. Some items stain or smell so they need to be kept separate, especially meat, fish and vegetables. You can’t be expected to bring a container for each category of item, especially when its something small like a dozen eggs. There is also the hygiene aspect – reusable bags I see offered by supermarkets today aren’t easy to clean and wouldn’t survive repeated trips in the washing machine. Some form of disposable packaging is needed.

We didn’t always have the luxury of plastic bags. We used baskets, paper bags and cardboard boxes for our shopping. That was before the advent of hypermarkets where food, sundries, clothes, footwear, electronics and more can be obtained in one visit. You know how it is when you go shopping for a few items and end up at the cashier with more than you planned for?

Even if you did bring your own bag(s), the option of a plastic/paper bag should always be there. Start with 10-20 sen now, make it daily instead of one day a week and slowly raise the price over the next 5-10 years to phase out its usage.

Impact for the Future

The reason supermarkets moved into shopping malls is because of the convenience of it. Shopping malls with cinemas, restaurants, supermarkets and retailers meant people could go there for one reason (food) and sidetrack into shopping for clothes and buying groceries.

There will come a time when the cost of a plastic bag becomes prohibitive. Forcing consumers to bring their own bag means they will only go to the supermarket when it is planned. This reduces the amount of casual shoppers like me, who go to a mall for one reason then pop in for a few items because it’s convenient. When that day comes I will have to start making shopping lists and planning my shopping trips well in advance.

In the future I would like to see:

  1. A ban on non-biodegradable plastic bags and food containers.
  2. The government publish standards for biodegradability and reward manufacturers of low-cost, high standard plastic bags.
  3. The Selangor government to adopt the Penang government policy of channeling the plastic bag sales funds towards welfare.
  4. Stores reward consumers for bringing their own bag. People respond better to rewards rather than punishment, even more so in a materialistic urban society like Selangor/Penang. TESCO for example has a rewards system in place that I hope other supermarkets adopt.

I hope this ‘No Plastic Bag’ campaign runs daily like Village Grocer, with the option for used plastic bags. The price being charged is negligible now and what is important is to get the consumer used to the idea of paying for something they took for granted. Then phase out the use of plastic bags slowly.

Update 2/2/2010: I read the notice issued by Elizabeth (Exco for Environment, Consumer Affairs and Tourism) on 29th December 2009 to participating businesses where she states that consumers must pay 20 sen for each plastic bag and the proceeds from those sales are to be channeled towards charities as part of the companies’ Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). The wording implies it is compulsory because the campaign comes into force starting 4th January 2010. However it is clear that the Selangor govt is taking a soft approach as the participating companies are implementing CSR in their own way, such as absorbing the profits then giving discounts without a clear link between money earned and money returned to the people.

The main focus in Selangor now is on reducing usage of plastic bags and not about welfare as there is no tracking being done. This explains why I found no mention of channeling the money towards welfare in any media. I stand by my hope that we follow Penang’s example one day .

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Written by ak57

January 17, 2010 at 8:42 pm