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Time to ban the plastic bag

Monday, February 10, 2014
Many turtles die because they mistake plastic bags for jellyfish. PHOTO COURTESY FLICKR

Recent news of a certain retailer’s plans to charge customers 25 cents for plastic bags made us at the T&T Guardian wonder what the reaction would be to such a move. As it turns out, the report wasn’t true but it still prompted a big debate in our newsroom, with most saying they would support a move to reduce or even ban plastic bags to protect the environment.


Plastic bags are widely used for carrying groceries and are often reused as mini trash bags but there are several alternatives. Supermarkets and shops can provide reusable cloth or canvas bags similar to those introduced by Hi-Lo Food Stores in 2009 as part of the Reusable Green Bag initiative. Store owners can also deter customers from using too many bags by charging small fees for additional bags. Educating people about the over use of plastic bags on a daily basis can go a long way in reducing the amounts of plastic that reaches the landfill, clogs our drainage systems, pollutes our waterways and destroys marine life.


There is more to the plastic bag than meets the eye. Plastic bags, like all plastics, are made from crude oil and they are not biodegradable. 


The Natural Environment Web site describes the negative effects of plastic bags on the enevironment, perfectly.


“It takes up to 100 million barrels of oil to manufacture a year’s worth of plastic bags worldwide. And takes thousands of years before one plastic bag can turn into small particles,” it says.


It also highlighted the enormous impact plastic bags have on the environment. “In 2010, between 500 billion and one trillion plastic bags were being used each year worldwide. Approximately 100,000 sea turtles and other marine animals die every year because they either mistake the bags for food or get strangled in them,” it pointed out.


This reality has encouraged some countries to clamp down on the use of plastic bags while some have issued complete bans on their use.


The latest place to issue a ban was the US state of Hawaii. On January 17, the ban officially began after the four major counties (Honolulu, Kauai, Maui and Hawaii), passed legislation banning the use of plastic bags at checkout counters which included retailers, restaurants and grocery stores. Hawaii’s move joined places like South Africa, China, Taiwan, Macedonia, Italy, Japan and Ethiopia.


Here in T&T, the Environmental Authority (EMA) told the T&T Guardian, there are no current policies in place to address the overuse or disposal of plastic bags. However, communications specialist Amrita Maharaj-Dube, said the organisation will support any initiative including legislation which seeks to reduce or eliminate altogether, the use of plastic bags.


“The use of plastic bags indeed needs to be significantly reduced or avoided altogether, and this call has been echoed by President Anthony Carmona,” said Maharaj-Dube.


For World Environment Day on June 5 last year, Carmona urged the nation to help reduce the country’s environmental footprint by using less plastic bags.


He said in a relatively small nation like T&T, there was much it could do to reduce its individual and collective negative impact on the environment. 


“One area which I would like to suggest is that of the use of plastic bags in our supermarkets and retail outlets. The scourge of the international retail trade is the plastic bag,” he pointed out.


Maharaj-Dube said through the EMA’s public education mandate, it continues to educate the public on alternatives to using plastic bags such as cloth-based or recyclable bags.


She said the decision, however, to issue a complete ban should be a directive of the Government and this directive can be implemented in phases. She also said people can voluntarily choose to avoid or reduce their use of plastic bags.


“Banning the use of plastic bags can be done voluntarily by store and grocery owners. As previously mentioned, the EMA can support this initiative through public awareness initiatives highlighting the environmental concerns generated from plastic bags usage,” Maharaj-Dube said.



Environmentalists: We will support a ban



When contacted, some environmentalists believe a ban would be the best option to prevent the over use of plastic bags in T&T, to protect the environment.


Marc de Verteuil of Papa Bois Conservation said the alternative is reusable bags, or sometimes the no bag option.


“When you buy few goods which can be easily carried without a bag. For instance, when you buy one bag of rice, the shop often wants to put it in another bag. This makes no sense,” said de Verteuil


Speaking about the recent situation at the Beetham dump, where fires were lit by protesting residents, causing the city and environs to be covered in smog for days, de Verteuil said much of the smoke created by the fires would have been caused by burning plastic bags among other types of plastics, which release dioxins into the atmosphere.


“Dioxins are among the nastiest toxins known to man. According to the World Heath Organisation they are highly toxic and can cause reproductive and developmental problems, damage the immune system, interfere with hormones and also cause cancer,” explained de Verteuil.


He noted if T&T were to implement waste separation and recycling, the country would be able to reduce the amount of waste reaching the landfills by more than 80 per cent. 


“This means that we can close the Beetham dump, which pollutes the Caroni Swamp, on the edge of which it’s located, and spews deadly toxins over the city of Port-of-Spain and environs. Banning plastic bags can be a part of that waste reduction. Reduce, reuse, recycle,” he concluded.


Sharing de Verteuil’s views was conservationist Monique Walker, who said without a doubt she would support legislation for a complete ban.


“There are so many alternatives out there, and in T&T we have become so accustomed to plastic bags that I actually get resistance when I tell a vendor that I don’t want one. While the groceries are a large source, fast food outlets also make a large contribution. Usually, the bag gets used for less than an hour before its discarded. Those bags are usually too small for a second use, like a garbage bag,” said Walker.


She pointed to shopping giant Pricesmart’s No Plastic Bag initiative and said this was a good example of where the ban worked. 


“It took a little while for people to get used to the idea, but I have not heard anyone complain about no bags at Pricesmart in at least a year, probably longer.


“If more store owners adopt this method, a huge chunk of our environmental problems could be solved,” said Walker.


However, she also pointed out that individual responsibility was key in protecting the environment.


“The onus is on everyone of us to be environmentally conscious. We are the biggest contributors and what we do whether good or bad will reflect what our environment will become,” said Walker.


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