A bag a scandal


Tuesday, January 08, 2019

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The Jamaica Observer of Saturday, December 29, 2018 carried one of several articles in the nation's newspapers that have fuelled a debate which has led to elevating the lowly plastic bag to levels of national importance or non-importance, given the restriction that has taken effect effective January 1, 2019.

I speak of the recently imposed ban on all single-use plastic “scandal” bags 24” x 24” or less and 1.2 ml in thickness, plastic drinking straws, and expanded polystyrene foam products.

If one were to have predicted that the demise of this little bag would have come, and with so much national noise, I would have crumpled noisily like a scandal bag in outrage. Given world trends of going environmentally friendly, though, no well-thinking person should be opposing this strategic move that can only but bring about increasingly lasting benefits to our island and its natural resources.

The argument is made even more airtight when considering a broader perspective of the island's international obligations, as so demanded by multilateral and regional agreements in the Vienna Convention for the Protection of Ozone Layer and the Convention for the Protection and Development of the Marine Environment of the Wider Caribbean Region, Cartagena de Indias, which the burning of plastic and its non-biodegradable presence in bodies of waters directly impact.

I still believe, though, given decades of undeniably noble and faithful service by the scandal bag to the people of Jamaica, and its co-accused mentioned above, the people it served did not deserve such ignoble treatment and dismissal.

Why the bag o' haste?

I literally cried scandal in the face of this titanic move on the part of Government who, despite a mounting iceberg of opposition, decided not to change course. But the Government will have to learn that things take a little time; change takes time!

The Government's claim of a sensitisation campaign that started over two months (just two months) ago is woefully inadequate and non-commensurate with the fact that plastic bags have carried the fabric of our society for decades. It is never good to be quick on the draw in imputing bad motives to people or bodies. In this case, it is the Government and the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA), but when one sees a move made in haste, and with little consultation of stakeholders, then antennae are bound to rise as people must start to wonder if a cat will soon be let out of the bag, or what is this bag hiding? And we trust and hope, in the spirit of good governance, that there is nothing under-handed or clandestine involved in this unflagging zeal by Government for environmental preservation.

We certainly do expect greater flexibility in decision-making on the part of government. So, come on, game-changers, there should have been greater elasticity in such matters of national importance and significance — even a little plastic bag can tell you that.

Right thing, wrong timing

The Government has handed over their decision to a type of Machiavellian reasoning, that, according to Minister Daryl Vaz, “There is no time which will be the right time for everyone. The right time is now and... history will judge us kindly, and our children, grandchildren and generations to come will thank us for January 1, 2019.” The minister has said, to my great surprise, that there is never a wrong time to do the right thing, and has cited history in his apologia to rid the nation, now, of these dreaded plastic bags.

But there is what is called an opportune time, Mr Minister. Like history has shown, while the abolition of slavery was the right thing to do, a period of apprenticeship was very welcome and beneficial; in our case, adequate sensitisation through robust campaigning would have helped in the transitional process from slavery to plastic bags to full freedom from them.

Surely, gently feeding people a bag of food should be elevated as the done thing, instead of forcing the bag down their throats. Our leaders have effectively missed out on a grand opportunity, through NEPA, by robbing us the needed time to prepare our taste buds to chew, process, and assimilate what is, in truth, good food for thought. Remember, the problem may not be what is done, but how it is done.

Plastic changes

I can't help but think: Plastic bag wise, plastic bottle foolish.

Minister without portfolio in the Ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation Daryl Vaz in a Gleaner (Sunday, December 30, 2018) story has cited wholesales in downtown Kingston as guilty of stockpiling scandal bags, and is adamant that wholesalers, under the baggage of a $2-million penalty for non-compliance, dump them. I can't help but remark: Dump them?! Aren't we, by virtue of this, strengthening the very discourse we are seeking to debunk?

In the same stretch, I was forced to look closer at the many words told by the photograph in the Jamaica Observer in which Vaz brandished the scandal bag — one of many that was sentenced to the gallows a couple days ago — yet sitting comfortably on the table was a plastic bottle usually holding the profitable miracle liquid so many Jamaicans would die for.

I could only wonder what was running through the little black bag's mind as the heavier or white/transparent bottle sits as a fluid discourse unfolds around them. The thing is, we risk making plastic changes and decisions that, over time, may be degradable.

Consider, by way of example, the plight of the CEO of Agri and Industrial Packaging Limited, Hugh Gray, who is forced to make a 20 per cent cut in staff complement. Just like that! Despite the positive externality this plastics ban is said to herald for the island, for this man and others for sure, this bag o' haste is a bag o' waste. Similar type businesses and their profitability will be stretched to a limit with this plastics ban, or could it turn out to be a plastic ban which, with a little more time, could have melted easier into the hearts of Jamaicans.

Surely, too, this can't be where the plastics discourse ends as we await and see if a similar fated end will be meted out to bottles, etc. We, too, anticipate the rolling out of the Government's “Plastic Minimisation Project” in collaboration with the United Nations Environment and the support of the Government of Japan (Jamaica Information Service).

I take this opportunity to thank you, Government, in your commitment to addressing environmental issues. I state again: Your move is visionary, for the ban on plastic bags may well be overdue, as growing sentiments seem to be saying. But, please, in the future, as I speak with my mouth gagged with plastic and taste compromised, don't be galloping as if with blinds on a horse. Do shed your light more progressively on what may be, to some, a dark and sensitive issue, and be ever mindful of what your floodlight of zeal may do to our eyes.

This little affair never needed to be a bag a scandal!

Warrick Lattibeaudiere lectures full-time in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Technology, Jamaica. Send comments to the Observer or

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