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Friday, 6 January 2017

Traders should provide alternatives such as environment-friendly paper bags instead of charging 20sen for each plastic bag

Consumer groups want traders to provide alternatives for plastic bags

THE STAR
    Jacob wants the government to put on record the arrangement with malls and supermarkets.
    Jacob wants the government to put on record the arrangement with malls and supermarkets.
     
    WITH the ban on plastic bags in the Federal Territories and Selangor having taken effect from Jan 1, consumer groups and experts are asking what happens to the money gained from the sale of plastic bags that were once given free to consumers.
    From this month onwards, consumers making purchases are no longer given free plastic bags. Instead, they are encouraged to bring their own recyclable bags. Or pay 20sen for each plastic bag.
    However, consumer groups want transparent guidelines on what businesses do with that money.
    Many say it should be used for green causes. Some suggest that traders provide alternatives such as environment-friendly paper bags instead of charging 20sen for each plastic bag – if the goal really is to discourage the use of plastic.
    There are also calls to study if the 20sen fee imposed really worked to wean consumers off plastic bags and whether the money becomes profit for businesses.
    Both consumers and experts say the public must not be “punished” for not bringing their own bags; instead, they should be provided with alternatives.
    Consumers and consumer groups
    The Star reader Alvin Guan wondered where all the gains from the sale of plastic bags on “No Plastic Bag Day” in the past ended up.
    “For a few years now, we have been paying 20sen for each plastic bag on Saturdays. Where has the money gone to? What is the result from the plastic ban on Saturdays?
    “The shops have saved their money from not providing plastic, but as consumers, what do we get? Any discount for those who bring their own bags? So far, none except for one retailer who gave point rewards. I was rewarded one point equivalent to one sen,” he said.
    Another reader Jacky Chin said the solution was to update the policy, whereby sellers must provide consumers with alternative carrier options.
    “Encourage and fund local SMEs to manufacture biodegradable products. This would be good governance. And it will promote environmental responsibility and growth of local manufacturing and businesses,” he said.
    Kenny Yeap suggested that businesses switch to using paper bags.
    “Switch to a viable recyclable alternative. Paying 20sen per plastic bag is ineffective,” he said.
    Datuk Jacob George, chairman of the Selangor Consumer Council, which is endorsed by the Domestic Trade and Consumer Affairs Ministry, urged the Selangor government to practice transparency in its plastic ban policy.
    “The ban on plastic must not come across as a punishment to consumers and result in other parties profiting.
    “Since the ban was policy-based, the gains from the sale of plastic should go towards improving the environment,” said George.
    He added there had been numerous attempts by the consumer group to seek clarification from the state over the issue, but they had received no feedback so far.
    “The state should go on record and state what is the arrangement with the malls and supermarkets. At the moment, consumers are in the dark as to what happens to the money. What happened to all the talk about transparency? It is important for consumer protection too,” George said.
    “It is good that we have taken this first step to ban plastic bags. But what is next? There are other dimensions to the issue of banning plastic. The authorities must have a long-term plan. This is an environmental issue, and I do not see why information should not be accessible to all,” he said.
    Fomca secretary-general Datuk Paul Selvaraj echoed the call for a clear policy over the money collected from selling plastic bags.
    “You can use the money for education purposes or for environment infrastructure works,” he said.
    Mall operator
    Sunway Malls chief operating officer Kevin Tan said the company’s management encouraged all its stakeholders to hold to the true spirit of the no-plastic bags campaign.
    “We want to protect, conserve and rejuvenate the environment. The authorities encouraged businesses to channel the gains from the sale of plastic bags for a good cause. The gains should preferably be used for environment-related things,” said Tan.
    He cited the example of a supermarket tenant that channelled the money from the sale of plastic bags towards environment-related CSR projects.
    Another supermarket retailer said it used the money to purchase more biodegradable plastic bags, while two major apparel stores said they had switched to paper bags.
    The experts
    Barry Rock, professor emeritus at the University of New Hampshire’s Department of Natural Resources and the Environment, suggested that the money be given to the government to develop sanitary landfills.
    StarMetro previously reported that only 10% of the country’s landfills were sanitary.
    Rock said the profits could also be used for the development of biodegradable materials for packaging purposes, such as bags and disposable eating utensils.
    He said the key reason for banning plastic bags in most cities around the world was because they were non-degradable.
    The use of non-degradable plastic bags to dispose of waste likely slowed the rate of waste degradation, compounding the problem of waste-disposal, he noted.
    Rock said in the US, the ban on plastic bags had promoted alternatives such as reusable cloth bags, paper bags made from forest products and biodegradable plastic bags.
    “Of these three options, the use of reusable cloth bags is not a good one, since the user would use the cloth bags repeatedly at the supermarkets, and thus it is not used to dispose of waste.
    “Whether paper bags offer a good option would depend on the availability of suitable forest products derived from readily available and cheap forest materials such as bark, branches and roots, poor-quality wood. This option could be looked into in Malaysia,” he said.
    Meanwhile a new approach in the US is the production of biodegradable plastic bags made from biodegradable cellulose and starch instead of petroleum.
    “Such biodegradable bags are more expensive than regular plastic bags – a cost passed on to the customers in higher prices,” Rock said.
    He added greater government oversight was needed to ensure that specific guidelines were provided to the retailers and supermarket owners, mandating that the profits from the sale of plastic bags were used for environmental projects.
    The profits could also be used to decrease food or product costs, again under the oversight of the government.
    Environment and waste management expert Dr Theng Lee Chong said what happened to the money must be controlled.
    He said the move to impose a charge of 20sen should not come across as a “punishment” for those who did not bring their own bags, and that it must also not be something that profited business owners.
    Theng called for the money to be channelled to environment-related activities, but stressed that proper monitoring was required to see if this was indeed the case and whether the plastic ban achieved its goal.
    “Who is monitoring what happens to all the 20sen collected or if the move is even effective? I have personally seen foreign labourers pay 20sen for a plastic bag. Even they can afford it.
    “The reason behind the fee is to encourage people to bring their own bags, but if the fee is low, the method may not be effective.
    “But if the fee was higher, who is going to monitor all the gains?” Theng asked.
    State Green Technology and Environment Committee chairman Elizabeth Wong was quoted in a Malay daily, saying the money from the sale of the plastic bags went back to the businesses.
    However the businesses are encouraged to return the proceeds to the respective company’s corporate social responsibility programmes.
    Each sale of the plastic bags has to be recorded in the sales receipt.
    She was quoted as saying that the money did not go to the state funds.

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