Baggage of the past

COME Jan 1, Penang will create a precedent of sorts with a total ban on the use of plastic bags at all hypermarkets, supermarkets, departmental stores, pharmacies, fast-food restaurants, nasi kandar restaurants and convenience stores (including those at petrol stations).

Operators of mini-markets and sole proprietorships will also be asked to enforce the ruling but for three days a week – Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.

The ruling does not mean that plastic bags will totally disappear from the state as many outlets, including the bustling hawker community that is synonymous with Penang, have been spared, for now at least.

Despite rumblings from various quarters – including women who wonder how they will discard their used sanitary pads – we should view the state’s initiative as part of the growing movement towards a greener future for all.

Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng is standing firm as he believes “the people should look on the positive side of the move, which stood to benefit the future generation in the long run.”

To think of the future generation is both necessary and noble, as we have seen how long-term plans are scuttled by short-term expediency, especially of the political nature.

In this context, the Penang Government should be given credit where it is due.

The bigger picture, however, extends beyond the banning of plastic bags.

We must, first of all, be clear of how such a ruling can be effectively implemented. Malaysians, after all, are pretty good at finding loopholes in any regulation.

The state used a staggered approach to implement the policy, from one day to three days to every day. So, there is no excuse for people finding difficulty in adjusting.

In fact, allowing the smaller outlets the three-day option is counter-productive as shoppers will only use their green bag on “No Plastic Day” and continue to use plastic bags on “normal” shopping days.

For those who feel plastic bags are needed to be reused as garbage bags, the long-term aim must be to strive for zero waste. We must recycle all we can and compost the organics so that there will be little waste left.

The movement to ban the use of plastic bags is not new. Many countries, including emerging giants like China and India, are heading in the same direction.

Politicians and corporations all around the world ponder over banning or taxing plastic bags but there is no clear solution in sight.

Ireland is often cited as a good example. In 2002, it imposed a hefty surcharge that spurred the public there to spurn plastic bags almost completely in favour of reusable cloth bags. But the 90% reduction in plastic-bag use should be viewed against the fact that there was a 400% increase in the local production of plastic garbage bags.

Four years later, most consumers had switched back to using plastic shopping bags, despite the tax, because they found it more convenient to do so.

It is clear that the ban on the use of plastic bags will have limited impact on the overall green agenda if the bigger issues are not addressed.

We need to embrace the 3Rs (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle) model and to address waste-management issues through a combination of public education, enforcement of the Solid Waste and Public Cleansing Management Act 2007, and cleaning programmes by local authorities.

As individuals, we also need to minimise our own carbon footprint. If we go to a hypermarket, we must shop wisely and not go on a buying spree simply because of the discounts. We must audit what we buy, whether they come in plastic bags or not.

The green agenda can only be embraced by creative and comprehensive planning backed by strong political will, education and a carrot-and-stick approach.

Related Stories: Plastic bag ban: Shopping malls going alternative

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