Fabian Demicoli

A Million Plastic Bags a Minute

…… this is the amount of plastic bags the consumers all over the world take from stores per minute! Its' incredible. One plastic bag uses enough petroleum to drive a car for 115 meters. In New Zealand they estimated that the 6.9 billion bags Australians and New Zealanders take from stores are enough to drive a car 800 million kilometers or 20,000 times around the world. In Italy they consume 2,000 million bags a month. It takes the world 200 years to absorb this monthly injection into the eco-system.

 

We all went to see Al Gore's film, ‘An Inconvenient truth: Global Warning Effect'. We all said what a shame and resolved to do something to save our planet. Yet now as the campaign in Malta is starting to get rid of the plastic bags, the screams have begun.  In Malta 55% of all plastic bags used are taken free from Supermarkets while 45% are taken from all the other shops. On average the Maltese use two bags per family a day. An incredible 50 million plastic bags a year.

 

My role as Director General of GRTU and as a person who is a strong believer that looking after the environment for us and for our children, is to convince people that this is not a choice but a must. It's up to all of us to lead. And as George Pullicino and Chris Ciantar know, on this issue, as on packaging waste and on waste of electrical and electronic equipment, I'm leading. Yes I'm pushing the State to take action. Yes, I ensured that GRTU on behalf of traders, retailers and service providers take action. We have set up our own management and waste compliance schemes to take care of the packaging waste and the electronic and electrical waste menace and we are prime movers on the plastic bag issue.

 

All the civilized nations are taking action. New Zealand, Australia, the UK, Scandinavian countries, Japan, and soon Italy, and other European countries will act to ban plastic bags. It is true that businesses have an interest that goes beyond environmental concern. Retailers and traders spend on the free dispensing of plastic bags in Malta a staggering 3.5 million euros. So, it makes not only environmental sense but also money sense. And let's face it: we're not banning shoes or pants. No one is being asked to walk bare.

 

Litter studies indicate that plastic bags are generally in the top twenty litter items counted although not in the top ten. Measured in numerical terms, items such as cigarettes butts are more prevalent in the litter stream, and can have wider ranging and devastating impacts on the landscape, on wildlife, and the economy through costs of dispensing and garbage collection and disposal.

 

Bags are a very visible component of the litter stream and their material persistence means the number of bags in the environment will increase over time if action is not taken.

 

Plastic bags are an environmental killer. Plastic bags are being banned across the world. China has banned plastic bags and saved 37 million barrels of oil annually. EU member states have taken various steps in this direction. In the UK, the village of Modbury took the initiative of banning plastic bags from its 43 retail outlets in the locality. This initiative was followed by a number of towns and cities across the United Kingdom. These initiatives were all on a voluntary basis. In the UK alone, 10-13 billion plastic bags are taken from shops and stores by customers. These plastic bags take anywhere between 450 and 1000 years to disintegrate in a landfill.

 

An interesting point is that Plastic bags are not choosy. A plastic bag and a degradable plastic bag are still plastic bags. Although the latter disintegrates faster it still gets caught in the wind like the others, and creates the same eyesore. Malta is now moving forward in this direction. A fee of 15 Euro cents for each carrier bag sold will come into force as of March 01, 2009. As from March or, 2009 it becomes illegal for shops, small and large, to give away plastic bags. Only the transparent, no hands, small bags given with bread and food from the counter can be dispensed free. All other bags must be sold.

 

This does not mean a plastic bag will cost just 15 Euro cents to the customer. It will eventually be more, but not less then 15 Euro cents. Enforcement officers will go round to ensure no shops give plastic bags for free.

 

It is time for the Maltese public and the business community to stand up and be counted. I have strategy encouraged GRTU and individual super markets and shop owners to back the Government authorities and find practical ways of solving the plastic bags problem. Negotiations with Government have been going on for months but a solution is now in sight.

 

Without fail these initiatives bring about a cost to one and all. We need to wake up to it. We need to wake up to the reality and the reality is that we need to leave behind us an environment for our future generations which is healthier than what we have today. The sacrifice that retailers will be made to make in the short term is more than justified in the long term, not only financially, but also as satisfaction for doing something right.

 

The Government on the hand should not look at his issue as simply another tax revenue matter. The Eco-Tax system is suspect because for us it is nothing but another revenue source and government has never been truly honest on this issue. Our negotiations with Government should now lead to better solutions. We cannot allow government on the basis of fiscal losses of any nature to interfere with environmental legislation. We have been discussing with Government Authorities how the business community will take on this initiative with the least of inconveniences. We have proposed a two month transitional period during which retailers can sell their existing plastic bags at minimally 15 Euro cents. This gives retailers an opportunity to recoup the capital spent on purchasing thousands of plastic bags which though intended for free dispensing still cost the business thousands of Euro. No business loves to see investments of thousands go down the drain however pro-environment they may be. During the first two month period, they will either contract the purchase of new plastic bags which would need to have the name of the importer or producer, Eco Contribution Reg No, and Batch No, printed in 1cm writing on one side or buy special stickers to fix on the bags already in store. After the appointed date, (we are proposing 1st June 2009), only the new bags with the new printing and registration will be dispensed and against money not for free.

 

For all remaining plastic bags in stock retailers can also opt to buy "stick on labels" from a Government Authority costing each 15 Euro cents, and applying these to current bags in hand.

 

Another option to the retailer is that of forwarding all remaining bags in hand to Wasteserv for shredding and recycling by 15th May 2009. WasteServ will pay back the sum of either 1 Euro cent or 6 Euro cents to the retailer on verification of the Eco Contribution paid on these bags. Government can only refund the tax imposed on each bag but cannot refund the cost on the bag as the bag was originally intended for free distribution

 

The practical other option is to start selling shopping bags made from new sources such as cotton or hemp bags or use of carton boxes, These are  the more environmentally friendly option. The bigger supermarkets will all be selling reusable, durable carrier bags of acceptable material as from March 2009.

 

Retailers will retain the right to sell the old plastic bags with stickers up to 31st December 2009, after which date, any plastic bag for sale would need to be one required by law. ‘Stick on labels' will not be available after 31st December 2009, for sale, but bags with the said ‘stick on label' could still be sold until they last.

 

The emphasis of the law enforcement officer will however be, as from March 1st 2009, on ensuring that no free dispensing of any plastic bags takes place. The public will know that the age of free dispensing of plastic bags by retailers in Malta is over. We are doing our best to put into practice what we preach. We are for the environment. Our members are slowly but consistently waking up to the reality. The business community is taking the lead in this initiative. Government cannot at this stage fail. The question will be one at enforcement level as the state is ready for this. The consumer, especially the environment friendly, is expected to co-operate. Together we can put this one right.

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