TCS Daily

Bag Gag Blues

By Richard Tren - June 12, 2003 12:00 AM

Just over a month ago, the South African Government enacted legislation that bans the thin plastic bags that are given out to consumers by supermarkets and shopkeepers. All shops are now required to provide, at a cost, thicker, more durable bags that are supposed to be more environmentally friendly and less likely to litter the countryside.

It should come as no surprise that plastic bag manufacturers are already reporting that demand for their product has plummeted and that jobs are now likely to be lost. One firm, Transpaco reports that demand for bags is at 20% of normal levels. It is inconceivable that the plastic bag manufacturers will be able to continue without shedding vast numbers of jobs. Yet the job losses are not the only argument against this type of legislation. The whole concept of regulating our environment with banning orders is deeply flawed.

In the past, shops and supermarkets included the price of plastic bags into the price of the product sold. It is now argued that because consumers are required to pay for the bags they use, the price of bags is no longer hidden and the price of products will fall. Consumers are supposed to benefit from this through cheaper goods. Yet it is implausible to think that supermarkets, greengrocers, hardware shops and anyone else that uses plastic bags will sit down and calculate the cost that plastic bags used to constitute for each product and reduce the price accordingly. My grocery bill certainly hasn't gone down.

It turns out, predictably, that the plastic bag legislation is hurting poor consumers more than rich consumers. I have noticed the wealthy consumers of the northern suburbs of Johannesburg taking their groceries loose in their trolleys to the boots of their waiting cars. Poor consumers on the other hand don't have this luxury. Plastic bags are required for the long walk from Sandton to Alexandra Township or for the bus and taxi rides to Soweto.

The major supermarket chains have been able to capitalise on the legislation by portraying themselves as caring, responsible businesses. By charging us all for thick plastic bags, we are informed that they looking after our environment, securing a better future for all, and achieving the supposedly desirable, but confused and nonsensical, goal of sustainable development. Hawkers and street traders don't have that luxury however. They can't put a 'Green' spin on the plastic bag ban. Their consumers suffer and therefore they suffer. For them, the ban means a less secure future and less development.

A few years ago I worked on a consultancy project that was supposed to discover the environmental and social priorities in townships and poor communities. Not surprisingly, the major concerns among South Africa's poor are not litter, or the prospect that some plastic bags may float in the ocean and be swallowed by fish. Crime, a lack of clean water and electricity and high levels of noise came out as the top priorities. Of course it wouldn't take a rocket scientist to figure that out (welcome to the world of consulting).

So although the poor don't care about litter, they are the ones that are paying most heavily for the legislation. The wealthy are hardly affected by the legislation and supposedly have the added benefit of being able to drive through our rural areas on holiday and seeing a cleaner and more pristine environment.

It has been argued that the legislation is good for development. The Department of Environmental Affairs tells us that because thin plastic bags are now banned, we all are much more aware of the benefits that the natural environment confers on us and our socio economic status is now improved. This is just the sort of nonsense we have all become used to hearing from the advocates of sustainable development and other pro-poverty ideas.

By arguing that this kind of legislation is of socio-economic benefit puts the cart before the horse. We know that environmental amenities are luxuries that people only care about when they become wealthier; hence township dwellers are more concerned about crime than plastic bags. If we really care about a cleaner environment, we should be advocating for the fastest possible economic growth, which will allow people to pay for a clean environment. Imposing legislation that puts people out of jobs and makes the poor even poorer is the fastest way to ruin an environment. You can't pass legislation to force people to care about litter, they either care or they don't care.

Some European countries, such as Ireland, have introduced levies on plastic bags in the hope that litter will be reduced. This legislation may have been just as ill conceived, but at least Ireland isn't grappling with 40% unemployment, appalling poverty and desperately low economic growth.

I have written a great deal of the enormous cost to African countries of eco-imperialism, particularly with regard to the use of DDT in malaria control. Rich countries imposing environmental standards on Africa is daft; it slows trade, makes us poorer and in the end is bad for the environment.

Perhaps rich countries can claim to be ignorant about the realities of life in Africa; the disease, the poverty and the hunger. Yet we South Africans cannot. You simply cannot escape the grinding poverty and joblessness in our country and so imposing legislation that exacerbates this is unforgivable. Our own national eco-imperialism is far more reprehensible and inexcusable than the international variety. The South African Government took great pride in announcing that we were the first country in Africa to have this kind of legislation. The legislation is nothing to be proud of; it is a disgrace.

Richard Tren is a director of the health advocacy group Africa Fighting Malaria.

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