Opinion: Promises, motions and more promises

POSTED: 12/8/14 1:27 AM

St. Maarten is not the only place on earth where banning single-use plastic grocery bags takes longer than the education of the average law student. After all the promises, motions and more promises, St. Maarten is still nowhere. How difficult could this be? And more importantly, why is nothing happening?

In the Netherlands State Secretary Wilma Mansveld, who has environment in her portfolio, once said that she wanted to regulate such a ban via European legislation. That more or less guaranteed that nothing would happen for a long time. If you think it is difficult to get eight out of fifteen parliamentarians in St. Maarten on one line, try that with the 28 member states of the European Union. This group includes exotic destinations like Estonia, Bulgaria and Greece, just to name a few. Banning plastic grocery bags is not a priority in at least some of these countries.

Mansveld got her own party – the leftwing Labor Party – on her back. Rightfully so, the party reasoned that waiting for European legislation is taking too long and that its state secretary ought to get on with it.

Now Mansveld has promised that the ban will be in place within a year. When the festive season rolls around in 2015, shoppers will have to bring their reusable shopping bags along. At least, that is the idea, but decision making in the Netherlands is not known for its lightning speed. Before you know it, the shaky VVD-Labor Party government falls over some innocuous dispute and then Mansveld’s plans return to the back burner.

Remarkably, the liberal VVD is not happy with Mansveld’s course of action,. Maybe the liberals want to hang on to their plastic bags for a while longer. Who knows?

Mansveld still has to investigate which plastic bags she wants to ban and how she wants to phase out the existing ones. Interesting exercise.

For some reason, politicians always have to research stuff, then research it some more, before they research it to death.

By now there are so many countries where plastic grocery bags have been banned that writing legislation ought to be a simple cut and paste operation. But wait, ho ho ho, it ain’t that simple at all. Read the following:

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.

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 six years ago. And we published it again a year ago.

In the meantime, our esteemed Parliament passed a motion to ban the use of plastic grocery bags, and MPs have even proudly presented their initiative law to the parliament, but not for handling in a public meeting yet. 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 was almost upon us again. The proposed legislation is peacefully resting at the bottom of some bureaucratic drawer. Will it ever surface again?

So far, successive governments and the parliament have found better things to do – like racking their brains over the budget or traveling to Parlatino meetings.

The thing is, people are lazy and they usually go for easy solutions. Why bother about a shopping bag if the supermarket offers free plastic bags? Who cares about the environment? That kind of attitude.

The proponents of a ban on those darn plastic bags are probably tired of singing the same song over and over again. We all know what plastic does to our environment. We all know that our environment – apart from whorehouses and casinos – is about the only thing we have to sell to tourists.

We all know all these things, yet the simple action needed to make something happen is always just behind the horizon.

On some level, we understand all this. Politicians are in office for four years (if they sit in Parliament) and most of the time shorter if they are members of a cabinet. They figure that a plastic bag-environmental disaster will not fall on their heads during their term – so why bother?

Shameful as that may be – it is a reality we have to live with. Until somebody really rocks the boat.

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