Where's the alternative to plastic bags?
In less than three months, plastic bags will disappear from supermarkets and convenience stores as the government campaign to cut out single-use plastic gains momentum.
"Do good with your heart, reduce danger for the environment" is the name of the campaign launched by the Ministry of Natural Resource and Environment in a bid to get the public on board. Minister Varawut Silpa-archa has been pushing to ban single-use plastic bags since taking office, keen to rid the country of a habit that does serious harm to our ecosystem.
The ministry has worked with 43 retail operators nationwide aiming to stop providing free single-use plastic bags to shoppers by Jan 1, 2020. Customers who ask for a plastic bag after that date will have to pay two to three baht. The next step is to ban all single-use plastic bags at fresh markets by Jan 1, 2021.
Thais use around 45 billion single-use plastic bags a year, according to Mr Varawut.
Retailers hand out about 30% or 13.5 billion of the these, while another 30 billion come from smaller businesses such as grocery stores and fresh markets.
According to the ministry, the anti-plastic measure is already bearing fruit. Over just the past year, plastic bag usage has fallen by two billion. The next step for the ministry is to ban single-use plastic bags in these small businesses.
Convenience stores nationwide are already cooperating with the ministry. The operator of the country's largest convenience store chain said its campaign, begun in July 2018, had cut the number of plastic bags used by 663 million. And it expects to reach a target of one billion by the end of this year.
I couldn't agree more with the steps being taken to reduce consumption of plastic bags and I'm glad to see the government has taken serious action, especially after plastic bags were found to have caused the death in August of the dugong Marium. But has the government overlooked how average city-dwellers live?
Before it places a total ban on single-use plastic bags, shouldn't it provide alternatives so that people won't have to bear the real-world consequences of government idealism?
Imagine how bus commuters -- of whom there are more than a million in Bangkok alone -- will manage. These people are mainly low-income earners who have to travel long hours on over-packed buses in unpredictable traffic, often for up to five hours a day. On Dec 5, some retail stores embraced the policy of no free plastic bags, instead providing brown paper bags. I barely noticed the change, as I only bought a few small items that day. But many customers who were caught by surprise complained loudly about the switch. While it is certainly possible to pack a week's worth of grocery items into a few brown paper bags, those shoppers who use buses wondered how they would make it home toting the environmentally friendly bags that evening.
Before banning such a useful everyday product, the government should ensure the public have alternatives and are able to adapt to the change.
Imagine the situation when single-use plastic is banned from fresh markets. So far we've not heard of any alternative bags or containers on offer. How will shoppers take home their purchases of freshly cut pork or whole fish? Should everyone carry boxes to fresh markets for each item on their shopping list?
Speaking idealistically, they should. But practically, they just can't.
One group that can afford to be idealistic is car owners, who have little problem saying no to plastic bags. Yet they can hardly claim to be eco-friendly, since their gas-guzzling vehicles pollute our environment to a far greater degree than public transport.
I recently travelled to a HomePro outlet by train. I was glad to hear the store had stopped giving out single-use plastic bags for free and decided instead to charge customers one baht apiece. And I didn't mind buying the bags, as long as they were of decent quality and could be used again and again. I had my own tote bag, but it wasn't big enough for the purchases I made. Without a car at my disposal, imagine how many extra bags I'd have had to buy to take the items home?
The current choices seem unfair for those who don't drive: Either pay for the plastic bags or struggle hard with brown paper totes which are cumbersome and easily torn. Most supermarkets or retail stores provide free parking for car-using customers, and these people have the privilege of rejecting bags since they can transfer their shopping items direct from a trolley into their car boot and drive home.
But life is very different for those who use public transport, whether it be buses or city trains. Despite living a more environmentally friendly lifestyle without a car, they face the burden of having to pay for plastic bags. Isn't this just a bit unfair?
Sirinya Wattanasukchai is a columnist for the Bangkok Post.