Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Saying Goodbye! to Plastic Bags...

The Mayor of the twin cities of Hyderabad and Secunderabad has a taken a bold and much overdue decision in banning the use of plastic bags. Come July 1st, commercial establishments will have to look for non-plastic alternatives that are sustainable. With the D-Day just around the corner, what is the status on the ground?
What I saw during my weekend visit to the SPAR supermarket at Somajiguda last Sunday (19th June) didn’t give me much confidence. The store still had rolls of “bio-degradable” plastic covers for customers to pack their vegetables and take them for weighing. The person at the weighing counter, even “wrapped” a plastic cover around a cucumber that I had picked up. I had to ask her to not use any more plastic than was absolutely necessary and paste the bar-coded sticker directly on the cucumber.
When asked about the store’s July 1st compliance plan, more than one store associate at SPAR gave me a blank stare followed by an embarrassed smile. If there is a plan to comply with the July 1st requirements, the store associates certainly don’t know about it yet.
Which forces me to suspect: Are the businesses in the city of Hyderabad smug and confident of getting the Mayor to repeal her decision of banning plastic bags? Or at least get the date extended? I wouldn’t be surprised if either happened. Given the clout that large businesses have in the corridors of power, I suspect such moves are already afoot.
Here’s my advice to SPAR and similar stores:
·         Ask customers to bring their own jute or other environment-friendly bags.

·         To pack farm produce, make available (at subsidized prices for a few weeks) bags made from post-consumer recycled content such as plastic/PET bottles and containers –or even better– lightweight, cotton muslin bags with drawstrings. Both options are reusable for long durations and can be washed as well. Cotton muslin is "fully breathable" and is an excellent option for storing fruits and vegetables.

·         For stores that have a loyalty points system in place, incentivize customers that diligently follow the “green way”. Add 5 0r 10 “green points” for customers’ that bring their own bags (in addition to the points they gain on the amounts they spend at the store). Such actions on part of the store management would go a long way in reinforcing positive customer behavior and earn enormous goodwill from the customers and the environment-conscious.
And finally, all green ideas need to be sustainable. While SPAR provides a shopping experience that is as good as any, there are a couple of things that I have noticed it could do better (I’ve shared this extensively with their Customer Service associates in writing):
1.     SPAR presently charges customers INR 5/- per “jumbo-sized” plastic bag to discourage plastic use while giving away the small and medium-sized bags for free.

I have seen customers carry their purchases in 8 to 12 small/medium bags when those items would comfortably fit in one or two jumbo-sized plastic bags. My average weekly spend at SPAR is nearly INR 2000/- and my purchases fit comfortably in the 2 jumbo-sized jute bags that I carry or in 2 “jumbo-sized” plastic SPAR bags.

What is the logic behind charging for one or two plastic bags and giving away 8 to 12 for free?

Wouldn’t it make sense for SPAR to charge their customers for the small and medium bags and give the jumbo bags for free (and perhaps not give any bags at all for those buying less than 5 items)? This would also force customers to bring their own bags in cities where a ban on plastic bags is not in force.

2.      SPAR is one among many stores to voluntarily switch to bio-degradable plastic bags. Customers wanting to do their bit for the environment embrace these bags with great fervor. The moot question is: Are bio-degradable plastic bags really green?

SPAR’s bio-degradable plastic bags carry the term “oxy-biodegradable” on them. What it means is that these bags will decompose when exposed to oxygen (and light, and moisture) as is the case in the composting of organic wastes. But the bags do not define the exact conditions (of oxygen, light and moisture) under which they will bio-degrade.

In countries such as India where plastic pollution is rampant and facilities that provide “composting conditions” to compost bio-degradable plastics are virtually non-existent, bio-degradable plastics also end up in traditional landfills where they decompose very slowly. The perceived environmental benefits of bio-degradable plastics are thus lost to the communities.

Stores using bio-degradable plastic bags should be aware of these realities and plan their “green strategies” accordingly.

Will Hyderabad-Secunderabad be plastic-free post July 1st?

Time will tell!

1 comment:

Jayanti said...

Hi Rajeev,

I read with interest your comments about the bio degradable plastic bags at the SPAR supermarket at Somajiguda. Interest because the environment is also close to my heart as it is quite obviously to yours. I think the ban to remove plastic bags is a commendable one and SPAR is totally gung ho about matters relating to the environment. Thank you so much for bringing up the matter – I wish that there were more aware customers like yourself.
SPAR is encouraging customers in Bangalore, Hyderabad, Mangalore, Delhi and Pune to bring in their own bags. Bags are also being sold to encourage customers to use reusable bags and for those customers who do not carry bags, we give them bags on a refundable deposit. It is difficult to change customer shopping habits but with supporters such as you, I’m sure this will be achieved. We will soon be charging for all bags- not just the big ones, in a move that will hopefully encourage all customers to consciously carry their own bags.
On the bio bags themselves – yes, they are completely degradable and are programmed to degrade in 12 months in the very landfills that you describe. I have a control sample that you might like to see, which about six months old is – it is at the powdery stage at the moment before it transforms into carbon dioxide, water and hummus in the soil. Slowly or otherwise, at the end of the day, there should be no trace left.
Let’s face it – plastic provides a level of convenience that other materials do not. Let’s manage it responsibly and carefully so that it is not the menace that it is made out to be, largely by our own doing. And with all due respect may I say that blanket bans, without providing suitable alternatives, are doomed to failure.

Warm regards,