Consumers are left holding the bag

A new law goes into effect shortly, yet there is little evidence that we are ready for it.

December 22, 2016 20:58

At Shufersal in Jerusalem’s Talpiot neighborhood. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

There may be no such thing as a free lunch, but there is such a thing as free plastic bags to wrap and carry your lunch in. However, the days of free plastic bags are numbered; the plastic bag law takes effect in a little more than a week – on January 1.

Although some grocery shoppers will inevitably grouse about losing the convenience of grabbing as many free bags as they want, people who profess concern about the environment and future generations express satisfaction that our country is joining other enlightened places around the world that are taking action to reduce plastic bag waste.

Metro interviewed shoppers to gauge their reactions to the imminent end of the era of free plastic bags at supermarkets. Their responses fell into three categories: The first group of respondents was unaware – or only vaguely aware – of the law that is about to take effect.

They asked basic questions about it, such as: How much will we have to pay for bags? Does this include all bags in all types of stores? How will it work? Will I pay for groceries, then arrange them in bags and pay again for however many bags I use? The second group was more cynical and more vocal.

Its responses included: “This is just another way to screw the little people. It’s another tax that falls heaviest on the poor who can least afford it. Rich people won’t mind the extra cost, and they wheel their grocery carts right to their car anyway; poor people and the elderly, who need the bags to manage on the bus, will suffer.

Where’s the money going to – to Sara Netanyahu to remodel one of her homes? “This is just an excuse to get more money out of us.

The tax is small now, but just watch – it will increase significantly in years to come.

“I don’t believe that bags really harm the environment anyway, and I don’t think this law will reduce pollution – people will still use plastic bags just as much, even if they have to buy them. This approach hasn’t worked in other places, and it certainly won’t work here. People will simply grab bags, or stores will still give them out, and the authorities won’t be able to stop them.”

The third group of people welcomed the law and even felt that the new regulations do not go far enough. They made comments such as: “I never use plastic bags anyway when I go shopping. Where I come from, they instituted a law like this years ago, so I’m used to it. I always bring my reusable cloth bags, and I get angry when I see some people take handfuls of plastic bags. Don’t they realize how harmful it is to the environment? I don’t think the new law is strong enough. They should charge serious money for each bag, not just a token amount.”

Metro entered major supermarkets and interviewed a number of employees there. Shockingly, virtually all of the workers we spoke with were unaware of the new law less than two weeks before it comes into effect. Cashiers and even the staff manning the courtesy desk had received no instruction about how their store was planning on implementing the regulations, but they hoped that the corporate management was making preparations.

Moreover, the stores had no signage advising shoppers of the impending change.

Here are answers to some of the questions asked by the shoppers we interviewed.

What are the details of the plastic bag law? The new law applies only to large supermarkets. Bags at checkout counters will cost 10 agorot each, and the purchase will appear on your receipt. Smaller bags for fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts, fruits, loose candies, etc. will still be freely available in the stores, but to carry groceries out, shoppers are expected to bring a sufficient number of their own reusable bags or pay for each bag they request.

Where will the money go? Supermarkets will be required to report the number of plastic bags they sell and remit the money they collect to the Environmental Protection Ministry’s Maintenance of Cleanliness Fund. The money will be earmarked to fund projects aimed at reducing pollution.

Will the new law have any real effect? Judging by its success in other countries, there is reason for optimism. In England, for example, it is estimated shoppers used six billion fewer plastic bags this year as a result of legislation implementing a token charge.

Other municipalities, taking matters to the next level, have gone beyond merely charging for plastic bags and have banned them entirely. Takoma Park, Maryland, for example, where a local waterway has chronically been littered with plastic bags, recently made it illegal for businesses to provide shoppers with the bags for any purchase (with specific exceptions).

Businesses there caught violating the ban will be slapped with a $100 fine, which will be doubled for all repeat offenses.

However, success is not a foregone conclusion; there are also places where plastic bag bans have been deemed a failure, such as in Austin, Texas.

How severe is the problem of plastic pollution? Our relatively small country distributes a staggering billion-and-a-half plastic bags at supermarkets each year, contributing to the estimated 500 billion to one trillion plastic bags that are consumed and discarded worldwide – more than a million bags every minute.

Because plastic takes centuries to biodegrade, it accumulates – in landfills, on beaches, in our oceans.

Unfortunately, it is not merely an eyesore. Hundreds of thousands of sea birds, marine mammals and other creatures die annually from plastic consumption.

Humans are not immune from harm; toxic plastics get absorbed into our bodies, too. More than 90% of Americans tested had a plastic chemical in their systems, and this has potentially harmful health effects.

Is this law really the best solution for the environment? The case of plastic bags is an example of technology creating a product that is inexpensive and useful, yet far exceeds our needs. Although we generally use plastic bags only once or twice for a short time – frequently only for minutes – it takes them centuries to break down.

There is nothing inherently evil about bag usage; what is problematic is the damage they do to the environment.

Technology created this problem; perhaps technology can be harnessed to solve it by developing a plastic bag that meets all of our needs and yet does not harm the environment after its use.

One possible solution is already available: an edible bag.

Bags have been developed that look and function like plastic bags, but are made of biodegradable, edible materials such as starches and vegetable oil derivatives. When used in stores, they are indistinguishable from plastic bags, yet they biodegrade naturally within just six months when discarded. When immersed in water they completely dissolve in a day, so they don’t litter beaches or endanger aquatic life.

Animals (and even humans) can ingest them without harm. Moreover, these bags are relatively inexpensive, costing not much more than the plastic bags commonly used today.

Mass market availability of eco-friendly bags is not a pipe dream. These bags are already in use in the Middle East in countries such as Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

Most of us hope for progress toward a world with much less plastic pollution. Perhaps in the near future we can have our bags and eat them, too?

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