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One of the topics that saw the English media briefly stray from its Olympics coverage last week was the call by environmental groups for a levy to be introduced on “single-use” plastic bags.
The English still get given free plastic bags by their supermarket chains, and the call to put an end to that comes in the wake of the news that the supermarkets gave out 5.4 percent more of them last year – 8 billion – than in 2010, many of them ending up as litter.
Ring a bell? Nine years ago South Africans stopped being given free plastic bags by supermarkets.
The government decreed that the bags should be thicker – at least 24 microns – to make them re-usable, in the hope that fewer would end up littering our urban and rural landscapes as our unofficial national flower.
And there was a feel-good aspect to the new dispensation, too – a levy on each bag, then 3c, collected by Sars, would go towards the setting up of a Section 21 company called Buyisa-e-Bag (buyisa meaning “give back”) as a joint initiative of the government, labour and business.
Buyisa-e-Bag’s aims were, to quote the Department of Environmental Affairs: “The expansion of waste collection networks, the establishment of rural waste collection SMMEs, job creation, improving skills and re-skilling workers in the plastics field.”
I reported on all of this at length at the time, and heard many a government official wax lyrical about what a win-win deal this was.
Well, it didn’t happen. Sorry to be a downer when we’re basking in Team SA’s Olympic triumphs, but we’ve been had.
Buyisa-e-Bag was wound up at the end of last year, having pretty much failed to accomplish anything, supposedly because of some very complicated red tape problem to do with the way the company was set up. So much for giving back.
According to government statistics, plastic bag recovery for recycling has remained ridiculously low – less than 5 percent – since the levy was introduced.
So we’re still paying for plastic bags; an unregulated amount which varies from supermarket to supermarket.
What is regulated is the levy – now 4c a bag, paid to Sars by the plastic bag manufacturers. Sars, in turn, pays that money to the National Treasury.
We’re jointly paying about R150 million a year. And what does Treasury do with that money?
Well, I have asked, but the department’s spokesperson hadn’t responded to my query at the time of writing.
A Pick n Pay spokesman told Consumer Alert: “We have not had any updated information from government regarding how this levy is spent, or of the establishment of any recycling plants funded by the levy.”
So, we know that the government is winning, because they’re getting a nice stream of revenue they didn’t get before 2003 when we began paying for plastic carrier bags. And they’re apparently not spending it on recycling initiatives to benefit the environment and create jobs.
Are the supermarket groups winning, too? After all, plastic bags were a massive cost to the industry before 2003, and now they charge us for them – and they get to determine how much.
That was one of the questions I asked all four major supermarket groups last week: “Minus the levy, does that leave the company with a profit or break-even on each bag, given that prior to the introduction of the levy, the supermarket groups bore the cost of the albeit thinner bags?”
Three denied making a profit on the bags…
Pick n Pay: “We make no profit on the bags.”
Shoprite/Checkers: “The Shoprite Group has been selling the regulated bags below cost price since the inception of the law in 2003 as part of its commitment to its customers.”
Woolworths: “The bags are not a profit stream for us.”
And Spar was decidedly cagey: “We can appreciate that this is of public interest… but our competitors would be even more interested…”
And here’s the really sad bit: Whereas the number of plastic bags dispensed by supermarkets took a radical dip when they acquired a price tag in 2003, the years since have seen the numbers climb again.
It seems we South Africans have generally got used to paying for plastic bags, and we’d rather do that than go to the trouble of taking our own reusable bags with us when we go shopping.
So, bearing in mind that the plastic bags are a lot thicker than they were pre-2003, we’ve actually gone backwards – there is effectively a lot more plastic ending up in landfills, in the form of supermarket carrier bags, than before the environmental initiative was launched.
Which means, of course, that the other winner is the plastics industry, which is churning out all this extra, thicker plastic.
Only the Shoprite group, which is patronised by mostly middle- to lower-income consumers, reported a “slight” drop in the demand for plastic bags.
“This may indicate that customers are either re-using the bags, or are making use of durable bags more frequently.
“But many customers still purchase shopping bags on every shopping trip.”
Here’s what the big four are currently charging for a standard 24-litre carrier bag:
Shoprite Checkers: 39c
And contrary to some consumers’ suspicions, the bags haven’t “got thinner” in the past nine years – all four groups are still selling bags of at least 24 microns thick, as legislated.
The same can’t be said for many smaller retailers of all descriptions. Some even charge for their too-thin carrier bags – the ultimate consumer rip-off.
Given that the idea of charging shoppers for thicker, reusable plastic carrier bags was to motivate us not to acquire a fresh stash of plastic on every shopping trip, which would end up in the landfills, I think the retailers should hike the price for each bag to at least 50c, and donate the profit to an environmental cause of their choice.
That way we might actually achieve something “green” as a nation out of our shopping bag habits, despite our government’s spectacular failings in this regard.