Zimbabwe plastic bag ban a great move, but…

Yesterday I passed through TM Avondale supermarket picking up a few things. In the queue ahead, an elderly customer purchasing an assortment of beverages was informed that the supermarket was no longer issuing free plastic bags. He would have to purchase one for R1 or one of the fancy green bags that cost a lot more. Though he was both surprised and annoyed to say the least, the customer ventured to ask the reason for that development. I strained with great interest to hear what the till operator would say. He sighed and said dismissively that oh it was some long story about preserving the environment that would take a lot of time (or one he couldn’t care) to explain.

Due to growing concerns over the environment and increased pressure from the Environmental Management Agency (EMA), the government recently issued a directive for supermarkets to stop issuing plastic bags to customers. As a result, plastic bags are now being sold as a measure to discourage their use. TM Avondale is among several other supermarkets that have not bothered to put up explanatory notices for the benefit of its customers.

The directive from government to ban plastic bags is praiseworthy, and Zimbabwe has joined a few other countries in the world who have implemented this. Although we applaud the bold move, it is interesting how there is very little public awareness over why certain directives such as this are being instituted. Unless I missed it – save for a few news articles in the press and Environment Minister Francis Nhema making an announcement broadcast one or two days on the news – there has hardly been any public awareness campaigns to explain things to ordinary people. But at least we know that at the end of this year when COP17 touches down in Durban, Zimbabwe would have demonstrated to the world that it has taken baby steps towards mitigation.

While I was in South Africa during my annual break, I noticed how companies like Eskom constantly run public campaigns in all forms imaginable – why and how citizens can consume less electricity. This is one company I have to go all out to beg its customers to buy less of its product. Just an aside. The point is; it takes little effort for government to spread the message more vigorously – especially on the state run broadcaster.

I think that just issuing out directives is not enough to get public cooperation or instil a sense of buy- in, unless this is viewed as immaterial. While R1 for a plastic bag is a deterrent for many and might in the long run achieve the objective of getting customers to bring own carrier bags – many people are still willing to forego small change that would have otherwise been given in the form of sweets or a credit note for a plastic bag. It is a small price to pay versus clutching all one’s purchases to one’s chest. In some quarters, the public perception is that this is just another ploy by the retailer to further fleece the customer of hard earned cash.

Perhaps it is indeed a long story, but one which I doubt the enforcers of the ban themselves really understand or care to explain further.

The long and short of the story is that hazards posed by plastics are numerous. The land gets littered by ugly and unhygienic plastic bag garbage. These bags eventually find their way into the city drainage system clogging drains and waterways and killing wildlife. Plastic beer can holders for instance have proved to be the nemesis of birds. Moreover plastic does not decompose. The main options available for its destruction are either burning or recycling, of which the former option contributes a lot to the carbon emissions largely responsible for the changes in climate. Recycling on the other hand has for some reason not been a very popular or viable business in Zimbabwe. However, more thought needs to be put in aside from banning plastic bags. Discarded plastic soft drink containers and cans also do not dispose easily and are other headaches the state needs to deal with. They are a big eyesore in Harare, especially the avenues area.

Bird caught in beer can holder ring chokes to death. Image courtesy of Save Our Seabirds Charitable Trust

On the flipside of things, it is worth exploring whether or not the ‘ban’ is actually working. What they have done essentially is to ban the free issuance of plastic bags rather than saying there should be no plastic bags at all. What this means is, a lot of people still forget to carry own carrier bags (me included) and only remember at the till point such that they have no choice but to purchase the R1 plastic bags. A total ban of plastic bags and concentrating on the manufacture and selling of recyclable eco-bags would ensure that customers remember to carry own shopping bags to the store. But I suppose this would be too drastic a measure at this point and perhaps the plan is to move in that direction in the near future

The other concerning thing is, there is no telling whether this directive somehow skipped clothing shops, because yesterday I bought a few t-shirts in a department store and again, only remembered at the till point that I had forgot to bring a carrier bag and would probably do the clutch-to-the-chest thing rather than part with R1. But the kind young man behind the counter silently packed the clothes in a nice thick plastic bag. I thought he had gone ahead to charge me without asking first, so I declined the bag. He looked at me in surprise; you don’t want a plastic bag? After a brief discussion, turned out the bag was for free.

As for the elderly customer buying beverages at TM Avondale, rather than part with R1, he preferred to scoop up all his bottles and clutch them precariously to his chest. Apart from thinking the directive is working to some extent, I hoped the old guy had a car waiting outside.

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