The Plastic Bag Saga

16 Aug




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All around the world we have various governments trying to reduce the number of plastic bags that are used once and dumped. The easiest way to do this according to the experts is to levy a charge for every bag the consumer uses. In theory this works well albeit only for a short period of time.

I came across a blog which highlights the problems that are encountered here in South Africa with regards to the money received for the plastic bags. Hopefully similar things do not happen in your country, that the money which should be earmarked for conservation actually does not get spent on conservation.

My queries to National Treasury have also not resulted in any positive answers apart from being transferred from one person to the next until my patience ran out and I hung up the phone.

See link below if you want to visit the blog by Wendy Knowler.

Plastic packets: who bags the profits?

One of the topics that saw the English media briefly stray from its Olympics coverage last week was the call by environmental groups for a levy to be introduced on “single-use” plastic bags.

The English still get given free plastic bags by their supermarket chains, and the call to put an end to that comes in the wake of the news that the supermarkets gave out 5.4 percent more of them last year – 8 billion – than in 2010, many of them ending up as litter.

Ring a bell? Nine years ago South Africans stopped being given free plastic bags by supermarkets.

The government decreed that the bags should be thicker – at least 24 microns – to make them re-usable, in the hope that fewer would end up littering our urban and rural landscapes as our unofficial national flower.

And there was a feel-good aspect to the new dispensation, too – a levy on each bag, then 3c, collected by Sars, would go towards the setting up of a Section 21 company called Buyisa-e-Bag (buyisa meaning “give back”) as a joint initiative |of the government, labour and business.

Buyisa-e-Bag’s aims were, to quote the Department of Environmental Affairs: “The expansion of waste collection networks, the establishment of rural waste collection SMMEs, job creation, improving skills and re-skilling workers in the plastics field.”

I reported on all of this at length at the time, and heard many a government official wax lyrical about what a win-win deal this was.

Well, it didn’t happen. Sorry to be a downer when we’re basking in Team SA’s Olympic triumphs, but we’ve been had.

Buyisa-e-Bag was wound up at the end of last year, having pretty much failed to accomplish anything, supposedly because of some very complicated red tape problem to do with the way the company was set up. So much for giving back.

According to government statistics, plastic bag recovery for recycling has remained ridiculously low – less than 5 percent – since the levy was introduced.

So we’re still paying for plastic bags; an unregulated amount which varies from supermarket to supermarket.

What is regulated is the levy – now 4c a bag, paid to Sars by the plastic bag manufacturers. Sars in turn pays that money to the National Treasury.

We’re jointly paying about R150 million a year. And what does Treasury do with that money?

Well, I have asked, but the department’s spokesperson hadn’t responded to my query at the time of writing.

A Pick n Pay spokesman told Consumer Watch: “We have not had any updated information from government regarding how this levy is spent, or of the establishment of any recycling plants funded by the levy.”

So, we know that the government is winning, because they’re getting a nice stream of revenue they didn’t get before 2003 when we began paying for plastic carrier bags. And they’re apparently not spending it on recycling initiatives to benefit the environment and create jobs.

Are the supermarket groups winning, too? After all, plastic bags were a massive cost to the industry before 2003, and now they charge us for them – and they get to determine how much.

That was one of the questions I asked all four major supermarket groups last week: “Minus the levy, does that leave the company with |a profit or break-even on each bag, given that prior to the introduction of the levy, the supermarket groups bore the cost of the albeit thinner bags?”

Three denied making a profit on the bags…

Pick n Pay: “We make no profit on the bags.”

Shoprite/Checkers: “The Shoprite Group has been selling the regulated bags below cost price since the inception of the law in 2003 as part of its commitment to its customers.”

Woolworths: “The bags are not a profit stream for us.”

And Spar was decidedly cagey: “We can appreciate that this is of public interest… but our competitors would be even more interested…”

And here’s the really sad bit: Whereas the number of plastic bags dispensed by supermarkets took a radical dip when they acquired a price tag in 2003, the years since have seen the numbers climb again.

It seems we South Africans have generally got used to paying for plastic bags, and we’d rather do that than go to the trouble of taking our own reusable bags with us when we go shopping.

So bearing in mind that the plastic bags are a lot thicker than they were pre-2003, we’ve actually gone backwards – there is effectively a lot more plastic landing up in landfills, in the form of supermarket carrier bags, than before the environmental initiative was launched.

Which means, of course, that the other winner is the plastics industry, which is churning out all this extra, thicker plastic.

Only the Shoprite group, which is patronised by mostly middle- to lower-income consumers, reported a “slight” drop in the demand for plastic bags. “This may indicate that customers are either re-using the bags, or are making use of durable bags more frequently.

“But many customers still purchase shopping bags on every shopping trip.”

Here’s what the big four are currently charging for a standard |24-litre carrier bag:

PnP: 39c

Spar: 36c

Shoprite Checkers: 39c

Woolworths: 44c

And contrary to some consumers’ suspicions, the bags haven’t “got thinner” in the past nine years – all four groups are still selling bags of at least 24 microns thick, as legislated.

The same can’t be said for many smaller retailers of all descriptions. Some even charge for their too-thin carrier bags – the ultimate consumer rip-off.

Given that the idea of charging shoppers for thicker, re-usable plastic carrier bags was to motivate us not to acquire a fresh stash of plastic on every shopping trip, which would end up in the landfills, I think the retailers should hike the price for each bag to at least 50c, and donate the profit to an environmental cause of their choice.

That way we might actually achieve something “green” as a nation out of our shopping bag habits, despite our government’s spectacular failings in this regard

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25 responses to “The Plastic Bag Saga

  1. 68ghia

    16/08/2012 at 11:09

    I have to say, I never bring my own bags when going shopping. Since I don’t usually buy a lot, I tend to go without bags for the most part.
    But they do get used again, as liners for rubbish bins and even to put garden rubbish in – I never use big black bags for that.
    As for where the money goes to? Since their Power trip started, the government has managed to create many new streams of revenue – licences, id documents, passports, increased petrol levies, bag levies. None of that is being used to fix what’s broken, only to enable them bigger cars, more houses and generally more waste.
    That is the African way. Don’t fix, buy new…

    • paul

      16/08/2012 at 13:14

      I read your blog and it is sadly very true what you say. I think our government thinks the lowest denomination is a billion and they are entitled to many of those!

  2. Ruth2Day

    16/08/2012 at 11:32

    I bought bags when this was first introduced and used them regularly for months and months. These days I sometimes forget them and have to pay for the plastic ones, which I use for bins etc. I’d be happy if the plastic bag was banned completely, after all our ancestors lived without them, I can still see my Nan carrying her groceries in a string bag, carrot tops poking out, while Granddad carried a heavy-duty bag.

    • paul

      16/08/2012 at 13:12

      Good old fashioned brown paper bags will do the trick. And they are environmentally friendly as well.
      Fish and chips in newspaper again?

      • Marco

        16/08/2012 at 13:15

        What goes into the newspaper ink, though? Some dye that tains your food and you end up glowing in the dark?

      • paul

        16/08/2012 at 13:21

        They used to put a clear paper between the fish and chips and the newspaper. It also served to keep the vinegar from seeping through. Think the UK still does it like that as well.

      • Marco

        16/08/2012 at 13:26

        Ah is that the trick! I remember corner shops using brown wrapping paper.

      • paul

        17/08/2012 at 19:27

        I recall the butcher (remember a butchery?) using brown paper to wrap the freshly cut meat. No fancy polystyrene and glad wrap as done today.

      • Marco

        18/08/2012 at 07:35

        Oh yes the butcher – they had all the carcasses in the back of the shop and hacked it off for you as needed! Can’t recall having seen one in quite some time.

      • Ruth2Day

        16/08/2012 at 16:38

        absolutely, bring in the brown bag and yes to fish and chips in newspaper, what a pleasure!

      • paul

        16/08/2012 at 18:49

        And the good thing about brown paper bags is that we can wear them on bad face days!! 🙂

      • Ruth2Day

        17/08/2012 at 04:45

        LOL 🙂

    • Marco

      16/08/2012 at 13:15

      I agree with you, Ruth, ban them altogether!

      • Ruth2Day

        16/08/2012 at 16:38

        time to start picketing, all those in favour say I

      • Marco

        17/08/2012 at 04:15

        Maybe throw in a riot or 2 as well? Couple of burning tyres – you know, catch their attention.

      • paul

        17/08/2012 at 19:19

        With the violent response by our police lately it may not be a good idea to do any picketing!

      • Ruth2Day

        18/08/2012 at 09:27

        good point

  3. Pussycat44

    16/08/2012 at 12:22

    Since the payment for plastic bags started I have used my own cloth bags for my shopping. Never in my life will I give any extra money to the government. It is worth buying these bags at the supermarket and they last a very long time.

    I remember in the beginning, that people brought these plastic bags for their shopping again, but very few do that now.

    Even if you buy a trolley-full of groceries, it’s well worth it to bring 10 or 15 bags back for the packing. Keep them in your car.

    • paul

      16/08/2012 at 13:10

      My problem is I forget to put the green bags back in the car after buying food. I then end up buying a plastic bag if I cant carry it all in my arms. Have quite a few cloth bags at home from various shops.
      At least my purchases at Makro doesn’t involve any bags!

  4. optie

    16/08/2012 at 13:47

    I keep my shopping bags in the car that way they are always handy. I do sometimes make impulse purchases and need to buy plastic bags but these are re-used to collect the dogs’ doings. Personally I like using my own bags, it’s no bother at all.

    • paul

      16/08/2012 at 18:54

      We all seem to use the plastic bags for picking up the dogs droppings and here I cannot think of an alternative as they tie up so neatly keeping everything inside.
      I am not sure who made bags of material very much like silk, but they rolled up very small and could be carried in your handbag without taking up much space. I know my wife used to have one but I havent seen it for some time.

    • paul

      17/08/2012 at 19:23

      My problem is that I remove EVERYTHING from the car when I clean it. But much to my wife’s dismay, I never put anything back as I feel the car would not be clean inside if I do put the items back. So it’s a case of normally not having our own bags with us.

  5. Anthony

    16/08/2012 at 23:33

    I keep my bags but when i go to do shopping, i forget them at home. How Ironic. Then i end up buying bags again.

  6. arkenaten

    17/08/2012 at 08:25

    As a rule, we wheel the trolley out to the car , then offload straight into the boot and then,once at home, straight into the cupboard.
    The Missus has a rather large ‘handbag’ that can accommodate everything but the the KS and a big bag of dog food so we hardly ever use placo bags.

    Interesting(shocking) bit of environment news: Local rag ran a story of a rhino carcass plus horn found in frikking Yeoville!!! Large Chinese community living fairly close by….
    Interesting that since SA has become so buddy buddy with China our Rhinos are disappearing faster than one can say Wi Fuk Yu.

    • paul

      17/08/2012 at 18:53

      How does one transport a Rhino carcass into Yeoville without arousing suspision? It isnt something that you just pop into a carry bag and cart into your garage.
      As to the reference of the large Chinese community living close by, it reminds me of a picture of Africa displaying an overlay of the Chinese flag covering 3/4 of the continent. I dont think the intention was to indicate that the Chinese have or are taking over Africa but to indicate trade. Maybe prophetic!


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