Is Charging Consumers for Plastic Bags Such A Big Deal?

randy7/pixabay
randy7/pixabay

In late November, major health and beauty product retailer Watsons announced that they would implement a 10-cent charge for plastic bags on Tuesdays, as part of their #SayNoToPlasticBags campaign. The company has also stated that all proceeds will go towards the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF)-Singapore’s conservation efforts.

Apart from charging customers for the use of plastic bags, Watsons will also be introducing plastic bags with 50 per cent more recycled plastic content in the first quarter of 2021. It has also partnered with WWF-Singapore for its Plastic ACTion (PACT) Retail Bag Charge initiative, which aims to reduce the consumption of plastic bags.

Not a new initiative

Watsonsā€™ move to charge its customers for the use of plastic bags isnā€™t a new move. NTUC Fairprice announced a similar move in November 2019, where they charged consumers 20-cents per transaction for plastic bags at Fairprice supermarkets, and 10-cents per transaction at FairPrice Xpress and Cheers convenience stores.

After one year of running this green initiative, the major supermarket has also announced that it will continue this move, in lieu of the ā€œpositive customer responseā€. There are positive results to show for it as well. The plastic bag charge that was implemented at 25 stores managed to save 15.6 million plastic bags, and resulted in approximately 7.8 million bring-your-own-bag transactions.

About $600,000 was raised from the plastic bag charge, and the amount of will be donated to supporting environmental and community causes.

In a similar vein, furniture giant IKEA has stopped the sale of plastic bags in 2013, and this saw a reduction of 53.4 million plastic bags in the first year.

Outside of Singapore, Japan also announced a charge for plastic bags in July. Stores and local governments also gave out complimentary reusable bags to shoppers prior to the implementation of the charge to encourage consumers to get into the habit of using reusable bags.

Is there really a point?

To be completely honest, I was initially skeptical about the initiative, because charging 10 cents for a plastic bag doesnā€™t seem like a big enough deterrent for me to refuse a bag for my purchase. Of course, if itā€™s a single item that I can easily fit into my bag, Iā€™ll refuse the plastic bag. But I really do need a bag for multiple items, paying a small charge doesnā€™t ruffle my feathers.

And it seems like Iā€™m not the only one. A survey done in 2019 revealed that a mere 9 per cent of Singaporeans wanted a plastic bag ban, while another 21 per cent wanted a charge for plastic bags. According to campaigners, one of the challenges in getting rid of plastic bag usage is that consumers have come to see single-use plastic bags as an entitlement and an integral part of retail services.

Maybe itā€™s my privilege talking; maybe I havenā€™t developed an adequate sense of environmental consciousness. I decided to ask my colleagues and the people around me how they felt about shops charging for plastic bags.

Itā€™s not about the cost

One of the first responses I got was that itā€™s not about the cost ā€” yes, 10 cents is a very small amount to pay for the sake of convenience ā€” but itā€™s a nudge and a reminder for consumers to bring their own bags.

In an interview with Channel NewsAsia, a spokesperson from NTUC said that habits like bringing oneā€™s own bags take time to nurture. Fairprice Group CEO Seah Kian Peng also mentioned that the supermarketā€™s programme is to ā€œencourage a behavioural change in customersā€.

Armed with this new perspective, itā€™s starting to become a little bit clearer to me ā€” maybe I should stop thinking about the money, and look at the changes that I can possibly make if I were to reduce my plastic bag usage.

So, how harmful are plastic bags exactly?

My next move was to do research for myself ā€” how exactly do plastic bags negatively impact our environment?

One of the biggest problems of plastic bags is that they take many years to decompose. In Singaporeā€™s case, plastic bags from the supermarket that are ā€˜reusedā€™ to dispose of rubbish in households will inevitably end up in Semakau. At the current rate of consumption, the landfill will run out of space by 2035. Dumping plastic bags in landfills is not only disastrous for the environment because of the space it takes up, but it also emits dangerous methane and carbon dioxide gases when left to decompose under sunlight. Burning these plastic bags also releases toxic substances into the air, leading to air pollution.

And thatā€™s only looking at plastic bags that are dumped into proper waste channels. Those that are inappropriately disposed of can lead to stormwater drain blockages, or may harm animals, causing severe problems such as starvation, choking, laceration, infection, reduced reproductive success, and even mortality.

Are there other alternatives?

While reading up on this entire plastic bag issue, I also came across a rather interesting response by Sumit Agarwal, Low Tuck Kwong Professor at the School of Business and Professor in the departments of Economics, Finance and Real Estate at the National University of Singapore.

Aside from charging consumers for bags, he brought up a case for making plastic bags too ugly and embarrassing for consumers to carry around, likening it to printing gory images of disease-ridden organs on cigarette packaging to deter people from using these bags.

In his article, he suggests that retailers print shocking messages on their bags, such as ā€œthis bag is a polluterā€ or ā€œimages of litter clogged beaches and animals that have died as a result of plastic pollutionā€ to dissuade consumers. He also pointed out that itā€™s not a hard thing to do for retailers, as the retail cost of such printing would be negligible. Furthermore, brands that attach them to this social cause might be a positive move in the eyes of environmentally-conscious consumers.

Okay, I get it now

I admit, maybe I havenā€™t been caring for the environment as much as I should. A lot of it can be attributed to laziness on my part, sometimes carrying an extra bag, or a bigger bag just seems like a hassle to me.

As Managing Director of Watsons Singapore Irene Lau mentioned, “Taking ownership of our planet starts with small consistent actions, and that is where we are directing our efforts to.ā€

Perhaps it really isnā€™t about whether we are affluent or privileged enough to overlook the cost of plastic bags, but rather itā€™s a reminder for each of us to play our part to save the environment. After all, weā€™re going to be here for some time, so let’s try and do what we can.

For those who are still unconvinced and unfazed by the 10-cent charge, maybe having to lug around the label of a polluter, or a picture of an asphyxiated marine animal might change your mind?

 

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