Plastic bag ban fails to send the right message

Plastic bag ban fails to send the right message

Natural Resources and Environment Minister Varawut Silpa-archa poses while campaigning for reduction in plastic waste at his ministry in Bangkok this month. (Photo by Apichart Jinakul)
Natural Resources and Environment Minister Varawut Silpa-archa poses while campaigning for reduction in plastic waste at his ministry in Bangkok this month. (Photo by Apichart Jinakul)

Thais always have a great sense of humour. Just take a look at the campaign to ban the use of single-use plastic bags at convenience stores and supermarkets which kicked off on Jan 1. On the first day, a number of shoppers heartily turned up at stores with unconventional containers such as buckets and pushcarts to load their purchases. Some of these images were shared on social media and garnered a number of smiles.

I found those pictures interesting although I'm not sure if people were mocking the ban or looking for practical solutions. At least the latter reason can be justified for non-motorists who wanted to buy items in bulk.

However, not everyone found the images funny. Some even questioned if operators should be able to pass the burden, or responsibility, onto consumers and force them to either carry tote bags or buy plastic bags. Meanwhile, others have thrown their full support behind the campaign, calling for an immediate ban at wet markets and small grocery stores instead of waiting until 2021.

I agree that some of the unhappy shoppers are people who are unable to give up the convenience of single-use plastic bags easily. However, many others who have also been affected by the campaign -- especially those from the lower social spectrum -- have simply accepted the responsibility quietly. However, those who support the campaign should not criticise those who think differently as everyone has their reasons. Imagine if you earned the minimum wage -- which still doesn't pay you enough money to afford a Grab ride home to the city's outskirts -- and after an hard day at work, the additional cost of a plastic bag may simply be intolerable.

I can understand the frustration of such people against the campaign. However, what I can't understand is how the authorities have enforced such a ban without providing practical solutions or information. Many consumers have turned to spunbond bags because they are lightweight and although they can be reused, there are concerns that since it is made from plastic, it is not a good alternative.

I'm also unimpressed with the way the government has made single-use plastic bags the villain instead of blaming itself for not educating the public about waste management and encouraging people to reuse and recycle. We've not taken waste separation seriously so far or seen it as an important task.

It's weird that the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment signed an MoU with a TV station to blur out images of single-use plastic bags appearing on screen -- the same censoring that is applied to alcoholic beverages and cigarettes -- to discourage consumption. The Bangkok governor has also jumped on the bandwagon by encouraging city officials to not bring single-use plastic bags to the office, but only tote bags.

Although I find the governor's move a bit naive, I appreciate the efforts of the governor and his team to set a good example instead of preaching without practising. It would be better if the governor could set another example by encouraging the use of public transport by giving up his car at least once a week as an effective way to combat the PM2.5 dust crisis that engulfs the city every year.

Despite these moves, the government's policy is ironic. While single-use plastic bags are being phased out and people are being told not to create more plastic waste, the Department of Industrial Works has admitted that imports of plastic waste which were approved before 2018 and will end in September cannot be terminated. This means that despite government measures to reduce plastic waste, the country will allow 220,000 tonnes of plastic waste to pour in.

Having said this, I have no objection to the ban or the campaign against the use of single-use plastic bags. At least it will stop us from adding more plastic waste to the rubbish that ends up in landfills and the sea. However, the authorities should take a hard look at current solutions such as the sale of different kinds of bags priced at three to six baht apiece which are of questionable quality. It should also look for a solution for reusable grocery bags which are currently priced between 40 to 50 baht per piece. In many countries, such bags cost a small fee and are in line with the average income and cost of living.

Apart from unregulated prices of alternative bags, I'm also unimpressed with the way the authorities are trying to promote plastic bag-phobia by making it an evil villain.

More importantly, I don't think stores should treat the money earned from selling plastic bags as a CSR activity and channel it to irrelevant places like hospitals. Instead, it should go to environment-related activities.

The best practice regarding plastic bags should be reasonable use and to phase them out as much as possible. Whatever you have a plastic or cotton bag at home, it's better to reuse it as many times as possible before throwing it away.

Sirinya Wattanasukchai

Columnist

Sirinya Wattanasukchai is a columnist for the Bangkok Post.


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