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Problem of Single-use Carry Bags

Updated: Mar 23, 2021

Following Ladakh's ban on single-use plastic, retailers in the region provide customers with Nonwoven/Polypropylene (PP) bags which, not everyone seems to know, is plastic (1). Because it appears like cloth, the widespread notion is that it is made from cloth. However, the behaviour of the bag, such as shrinking upon burning, resistance to water, and fragmenting into microfibres, should help people in discerning that it is plastic. PP bags are said to be reusable and recyclable, but in reality are neither: they do not last beyond one or two uses and although recyclable, the sheer quantity of the bags littered around rules out the possibility of collecting and sending them out of Ladakh to recyclers.


Numerous PP bags lying in a heap of unsegregated trash at the new Solid Waste Management Plant at Skampari.

In some cities of India and in certain countries of the world, retailers charge customers for carry bags - the objective is to make users pay for the natural resources and energy gone into producing and transporting them. Many retailers also provide sustainable alternatives such as reusable cloth or jute bags. Paying for a carry bag, whichever the material, prompts customers to refuse the bag, bring their own bag or chose the sustainable alternative, and refrain from throwing away the bag after its intended use is over (2).


In Ladakh, retailers do not charge customers for PP bags although themselves purchase it for something between Rupees 1-10 a piece. Retailers give away the bags quite generously and customers accept them easily on the understanding that retailers are obligated to provide them with free bags because they shopped at their store. Vegetable and fruit sellers, on the other hand, provide paper bags, which they rightly call lifafa (envelope), since these are small, do not have handles for carrying and a base for support. They are designed for one-time use. The cost of an individual paper envelope is not known. What is known is they arrive in truckloads of 42 kilos costing 30,000 INR in total. At any rate, the paper envelope comes much cheaper than the PP bag which is why, as vegetable and fruit sellers tell, they use these in place of PP bags. Sellers can be seen packaging each variety of vegetable and fruit separately. One only has to stand a while and watch to be sure that unaccounted numbers of paper envelopes are given away by a seller in a single day. Although paper is biodegradable and safe to dispose - which in this context means littering - it should be conserved for what it is: 1 ton of paper consumes 98 tonnes of various resources to produce (3).


Carry bags are an inessential thing. Everyone has bags at home which could be brought for shopping preventing taking home flimsy bags which even if reused would be thrown eventually. From the point of recycling also carry bags are useless because recovering them from dumpsites or the trash collected by the municipality is nearly impossible, forget picking the ones littered. Who would do all this and why - it is economically unprofitable. Most importantly, the end for carry bags usually comes by burning which releases toxins into the air or by throwing into water bodies where they breakdown into microfibres and remain in water permanently. Since customers do not pay for carry bags, they are unconcerned with any of these realities.


The waste from PP bags as well as paper envelopes can be reduced quite simply though: customers have to learn to refuse carry bags and remember to bring their own bags while retailers have to provide sustainable alternatives like reusable cloth or jute bags. Charging for carry bags would be the most effective way of arousing conscious behaviour in both buyer and seller. At any rate, having one's own bag each time while going out is something which should become a habit with everyone wherever they are residing or visiting.



Notes:

1. “Plastic” means material which contains as an essential ingredient a high polymer such as polyethylene terephthalate, high density polyethylene, Vinyl, low density polyethylene, polypropylene, polystyrene resins, multi-materials like acrylonitrile butadiene styrene, polyphenylene oxide, polycarbonate, Polybutylene terephthalate. [Gazette of India, Part-II, Section-3, Sub-section (i), Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, 18 March 2016.March, 2016.]

2. The German approach to plastic bags is a good example for waste reduction. Although Germany’s consumption of plastic bags was already below the European average, at around 72 bags per person, per year, the voluntary introduction by retailers of a plastic bag charge has reduced this further to around 38 bags, proving that conscious behaviour by individuals can have a big impact. ["5R Green Technolympics" (2019), prepared by Klaipeda University, Lithuania for South Baltic Bridge Project. Accessed online at http://sbbridge.eu/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/5R_leidinys_taisytas.pdf on 1 August 2020.]

3. Hawken, Paul and Amory L. Hunter (1999), Natural Capitalism, New York: Little Brown & Co., p. 50 as cited in Annie Leonard (2010), Story of Stuff: How our Obsession with Stuff is Trashing the Planet, our Communities, and our Health - And a Vision for Change, Free Press: New York, p. 80.


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