Opinion: Plastic bags, an old story

POSTED: 08/30/13 1:19 PM

A couple of weeks ago, the TelEm group of companies came with a good initiative. It gave away eco-friendly shopping bags in an attempt to reduce the use of flimsy plastic bags. There are also eco-shoppers on the market produced by Firgos, so one is tempted to think that the plastic bag-times they are a-changing.

The St. Maarten Pride Foundation got the opportunity to give the TelEm eco-shoppers away to shoppers at Le Grand Marché a few Saturdays ago. Pride-President Jadira Veen used the supermarket’s intercom-system to make shoppers aware of the action. It sounded like a new era had begun.

Outside the supermarket that day, the first disappointments became quickly visible. Some shoppers who had accepted the Eco-shopper before they entered the store, came out later with their shopping packed in those darn plastic bags.

A couple of weeks down the road, the effect of the initiative seems to have evaporated. Customers use plastic bags like there is no tomorrow and TelEm’s Eco-shopper is practically nowhere to be seen.

Is TelEm’s initiative therefore a failure?

No, it is not. It is still a wonderful initiative that shows that at least somebody cares about the environment; it is telling that these signals come from the private sector.

Bringing about behavioral changes usually takes time. People must want to use an alternative for plastic bags, and supermarkets must want to encourage that.

It is no use waiting for an initiative from our politicians; their continued silence about the subject tells us all we want to know. But the private sector – the supermarkets – have the power to do something.

Here is a simple solution that might just work. Offer customers a choice between eco-friendly paper bags and plastic bags. Give the paper bags away free and charge customers $0.10 for every plastic bag they take. Also, offer eco-shopper bags for sale at a reasonable price.

If the paper bags are more expensive than the plastic bags – a safe assumption – their cost might be covered by the money that comes in for charging users of plastic bags. If that does not work, add a penny to the price of each product.

Eco-conscious customers will be happy to pay for it. And people who insist on using plastic bags will pay twice.

After plowing through this text, readers are forgiven if they wonder what on earth they missed this week in the newspapers. They did not. The piece above was published in this newspaper in March 2008, more than five years ago.

In the meantime, our esteemed parliament has passed a motion to ban the use of plastic grocery bags, and MPs have even proudly presented their initiative law to the parliament. That was already some time ago. After that, the summer happened, the scandal at the National Security Service happened and – oh, a cabinet fell, but not the current one –  and the next coastal cleanup action is almost upon us again. The proposed legislation is peacefully resting at the bottom of some bureaucratic drawer. Will it ever surface again? Who knows, but one thing is certain: initiatives from the private sector are a scarce commodity in the ban-the-plastic-bags field.

Therefore, every now and then it is useful to go through old newspapers to see what it was again that we promised each other. For all we know, somebody just might wake up and actually do something.

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