Friday, December 14, 2007

Life without throw-away plastic bags

Government of Kerala has banned the use of plastic bags thinner than 30 microns in the state. From what I see around me the ban is still a 'work in progress'. The simple reason why retail stores do not want to move on to thicker plastic bags is that they do not want to spend more money on the plastic bags.

The incremental increase in cost per bag might be low but the total incremental expense incurred in going for the thicker bags is not. Additionally since shop keepers normally buy their plastic bags in bulk they will have to bear total incremental cost upfront and this makes them reluctant to make the shift. Moreover this additional cost has to come out of the retailer's profit as they will not be able to transfer this to the cost of the products they sell as the per bag cost increment is low and any price rise will not be justifiable.

Alternative options like paper bags, jute bags are expensive and would not be viable for any products that do not sell at high margins. They might work out fine in textile showrooms, luxury products stores, gift showrooms etc but not in a grocery store or a vegetable stall or a milk stall. So how do you make the shift? Implementing the govt rule might be very expensive in the short run. Is just a shift to thicker bags enough?

The idea behind moving to thicker plastic bags is that the thicker bags can be recycled as opposed to the thinner ones. But they have to be recycled for the ban to make any sense. Throwing the bag along with the household garbage does in fact cause more problems than throwing away the older thinner bags.Plastic is non bio-degradable and remains in the environment and cause different kinds of problems ranging from clogged drainages to creation of potent carcinogens when burnt.

Unless people seriously understand the reason why the thinner bags were banned and realize the importance of reusing or recycling plastic bags the ban would just be a waste of public money by enforcements and private money by loss of profit. In addition to enforcing the ban government should also focus on conveying to the general public the reasons behind the ban and importance of recycling and other good environmental practices.

Once consumers decide to cut down on their use of plastic bags the demand curve will fall drastically and this can lead to the desired effects of the ban. Ever since I started living on my own, i.e. since April 2006, I have been successfully following a no-plastic-bag policy in my house. I simply stopped getting plastic bags when I buy anything. Instead I carry durable, reusable, heavy duty bags when I go shopping. The bags I have are made of plastic and have lasted for the last 1 1/2 years. If I forget to take the bag I carry the goods back to the car or back home (if from a nearby store) in my arms as a punishment for forgetting the bags :).

Remember - plastic is bad for several reasons - environmental problems, health problems, civic problems. So avoid plastic as much as possible, reuse if unavoidable and recycle if not reusable. And yes - it is possible to avoid it almost completely as I have successfully demonstrated with the small experiment with my life since April 2006.