Nine by ten inch clear plastic bags are used by vendors to protect their inventory from dust. (Photo: Karl Mclarty)

MANUFACTURERS and importers changing the size of plastic they distribute is defeating the purpose of the ban of single-use plastic bags, according to chief executive officer of the Jamaica Environment Trust (JET) Dr Theresa Rodriques Moodie who said the ban, which took effect on January 1, 2019, has done little to avail the environmental concerns about plastics.

"I think the ban has been effective to a point but what we have seen is that there are alternatives that have now entered the market, so we have different size plastic bags. We have fewer people using single-use plastic bags, but we still have plastic bags in use," Dr Rodriques Moodie said in an interview with the Jamaica Observer.

She explained that these alternatives include different thickness and sizes of plastic bags that were manufactured to work around the ban.

"The ban was very specific, it stated sizes and thickness, so you see alternative sizes showing up on the market, so it wasn't an outright ban," she said.

The ban was specific to include all single-use plastic carrier bags with dimensions at and below 24 inches by 24 inches (24"x 24"), which included those bags commonly referred to as 'scandal bags', and used primarily in the retail and wholesale sectors. There were exceptions, however, in the ban, single-use plastic bags utilised to maintain public health or food safety standards were not applied.

The Business Observer took a trip to downtown Kingston where we observed that these smaller plastic bags are prominent in the market and among the use of street vendors. Vendors explained to the Business Observer that due to the nature of their business using plastic is imperative.

"What am I going to use to sell in? What am I going to put the goods in?" Leon, a fruit vendor, asked. While packaging slices of watermelon for sale, using a much smaller size single-use plastic bag, he added that some people can't afford the reusable bags which are being sold for $50.

Another vendor was seen tying his clothes and sandals for sale in clear plastic bags and explained that he has no other solution to protect his inventory while leaving them on display in the dusty downtown Kingston area.

"Without the plastic bag the clothes will get dirty, that's why I have to change them more often," he said.

He spends $400 for a pack of 8 by 12 inches plastic bags which consists of 100 and buys a new pack every two weeks.

"This is Jamaica, this is not America where it say it ban, and it [actually] ban. When things ban out here it still use. It just not up on the shelves anymore. If you go in there and you ask for it, you will get it," said Kemar, a regular shopper in the wholesales in downtown Kingston.

Rodriques Moodie says because the law was phrased in such a way that allowed this alternative to be available on the market, there has not been a huge difference for the environment. Since the ban was imposed, the importation of all other types of alternative plastics are being used, she says the rule has to be stricter with what material can be used.

"We see people marketing things as compostable or biodegradable. Plastics are not biodegradable. Plastics take hundreds of years to break down and so we need to be very careful about what we are allowing to be imported and be labelled as biodegradable or compostable," she said.

She noted that even though some labels say compostable, it is only compostable in industrial facilities that are not in Jamaica. Additionally, she has observed that some suppliers lack understanding of what is biodegradable.

"I was looking at something in the supermarket, it said it was eco-friendly, but I wasn't able to tell if it was paper or paper mixed with plastic. Labelling is important, especially if you want to make good decisions in your purchasing," she added.

Another concern she raised much like consumers and vendors, is that the bags manufactured to replace plastic bags are not durable. Due to this frustration of bags not being able to withstand the weight of goods, consumers and vendors are calling for the ban on plastics to be removed.

"The bags here are not stronger! These don't have use. When you put things in there it just pop out and leave you [on the road]. I don't know why, but when you double a scandal bag you carry groceries in there better," Judene told the Business Observer while shopping in downtown Kingston.

This reporter saw a vendor selling plastic bags and the reusable bags for $30 and $50, respectively. The vendor told the Business Observer that people prefer to buy the 'scandal bags' over the thinner, alternative, reusable bags.

"The people, they still use it. If they buy meat and they take the bus, them use the plastic bag so it doesn't drain down the bag," the vendor said.

She was adamant, however, that the bags weren't hers, she was only selling for a "friend".

Another vendor, Pam, expressed her frustration from both a vendor and consumer perspective about the replacement bags. She showed the Business Observer how the newly manufactured bags that have not been used or sold as yet are already faulty.

"If them even use those bags, after a time them burst. The handles are not good. You can't carry anything in the replacements. Better they make the scandal use same way," she said.

She explained that the best bags are the thicker ones in the supermarket or from certain retailers selling meat kinds which have traces of plastic in them.

It's for this same reason Rodriques Moodie is calling for better replacements to be available for the ban to be effective.

"You can't just put a ban. You have to put a ban with suitable things in place and affordable things in place," said Rodriques Moodie. She added, "The ban definitely has to be expanded but while we are expanding the ban we need to consider the alternatives."

She also pointed to the containers which have replaced styrofoam for food. Currently, the affordable replacement food containers are made out of paper and tend to leak the contents onto consumers.

"It's not that there are not alternatives; there are but those are sometimes more expensive so all of those things have to be considered when you put a ban in place," she said.

Rodriques Moodie believes if proper cost-effective alternative containers and bags were being manufactured, the ban would be more effective and will limit people trying to find loopholes.

Still she says, the ban should be extended to plastic bottles. "Plastic bottles tend to dominate the waste drains especially when we look at our coastal clean-up," she said.

She says the deposit refund scheme for plastic bottles needs to be collecting more because there's still a lot ending up in the environment.

The scheme, which is voluntary, provides a cash refund to consumers who return their plastic bottles after use. However, a look around the island shows there's not enough recycling bins to encourage the behaviour of plastic recycling. Something in which the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA) says they are aware of and are working on.

"The infrastructure will be bolstered to increase the collection rate because I think right now is only 20 per cent of bottles are recycled," said Anthony McKenzie, director of environmental management and conservation at NEPA.

A vendor placing his inventory in bags to protect from the dust in downtown, Kingston. (Photo: Karl Mclarty)
Judene, a consumer showing what she carries in her reusuable bag (Photo: Karl Mclarty)
A consumer carrying her goods in a scandal bag in the busy streets of downtown, Kingston.(Photo: Karl Mclarty)
Pam, a frustrated consumer and vendor, showing the Business Observer how fragile the re-usable bags are.(Photo: Karl Mclarty)
"Scandal bags" for sale on the street side in downtown Kingston.(Photo: Karl Mclarty)
Leon, a fruit vendor in downtown, Kingston, holding a slice of watermelon to be bagged up for sale. (Photo: Karl Mclarty)
BY CODIE-ANN BARRETT Senior business reporter

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