“If we have any hope of finding ways for seven billion people to live well on planet with finite resources, we have to learn to use our resources efficiently. Plastic bags are neither efficient nor environmentally friendly.” — David Suzuki
In the early days of this month, at the dawn of a new year and decade, there was caustic criticism of a new law that came into effect on January 1, 2020 in The Bahamas.
The law, short-titled “The Environmental Protection (Control of Plastic Pollution) Act 2019” (the Act), was the cause of the subsequent vehement public outcry against a well-intended public policy that was poorly presented and inadequately implemented.
Therefore, this week we would like to consider this — considering the vociferous public clamor and consternation surrounding the implementation of the ban on single-use plastics, when all is said and done, who will be left holding the bag?
Undoubtedly, the intent of the legislation was noble. It was drafted and enacted in a world that recognizes that plastics are enormously destructive to the environment, human and sea life, including coral reefs and fisheries.
Countless numbers of situations have been documented that vividly portray the harmful effects of plastics on human and animal life and the environment.
The act is designed to prohibit the use of so-called single-use plastic bags that are normally provided at check-out counters in food stores and other retail business houses at the point of sale.
These bags, it must be noted, are reused in multiple ways by many people, sometimes over and over, when they arrive in homes and business places.
The act extends the prohibition to “polystyrene cups, plates, and similar foodware that are used to contain food.”
Plastic knives, forks, spoons, and straws are also prohibited.
The act provides for numerous exceptions where single-use plastic bags are permissible for very practical reasons.
For example, the prohibition for single-use plastic bags does not apply where the bag is intended solely to contain items that are best stored in in them, such as pharmaceutical items, agricultural products, disposal of household waste (aka garbage bags), packaging of ice, food and hardware items, to name a few.
What went wrong?
As we said, the legislation’s intent was noble. So, what went wrong?
As with many public policy matters, with the single-use plastic bag ban, it is not so much what was done as to how it was done.
We can proffer several deficiencies regarding the government’s implementation of this initiative.
First: in cases where legislation so extensively and expansively affects so many lives in The Bahamas, there should have been greater public education on the impact of this legislation before it was enacted and implemented.
There were barely public meetings to educate the public about the intent of the legislation or its impact on our daily lives.
Those affected at such a fundamental level on matters of public policy should be apprised of and have a say about its effects on their lives.
That was not widely done in this case.
Secondly, there is a cost associated with the implementation of this legislation that many people did not see coming until it was implemented.
The new act provides for a minimum charge of between $0.25 plus VAT for plastic bags and $1 plus VAT for reusable grocery bags at the food stores.
This cost is now borne by the consumer. Previously it was borne by the merchant.
As a result of this incremental cost, as is so frequently the case, the greater burden is normally shouldered by the poor who are least able to absorb it.
Since coming to office, this government has imposed enormously incremental costs on all citizens by way of the 60 percent increase in value-added tax (VAT), and an increase in the average monthly electricity cost of approximately $30 per household and business enterprise. And now this.
Third: before enacting this legislation, the government should have demonstrated a degree of compassion by recognizing that it is unconscionable to burden the consumer with the cost of shopping bags that would replace the single-use plastic bags.
It should have required the merchant to bear the cost resulting from this prohibition of single-use plastic bags and their replacement.
One of the largest food merchants recently appealed to the government to remove this cost to the consumer. Imagine that!
In most cases, it is the government that must protect the consumer from the merchant.
However, it is now the merchant who is appealing to protect the consumer from the government’s ill-conceived and misguided approach to this matter.
As Bahamians normally exclaim in such matters of imponderably ironic instances: “Well, mudder sick!”
Fourth: what about the other equally offensive and harmful plastics that are not covered by this legislation?
Aren’t plastic bottles as harmful to the environment as single-use plastic bags? Can the same case not be made for plastic covers for those same plastic bottles?
It appears that the extent or scope of the plastics ban is deplorably deficient and not very well thought out when one considers that far more items should be included in the ban that this legislation engenders.
Fifth: speaking of a deplorably deficient environmental policy, if the government is seriously interested in and truly committed to improving our environment, it should develop a more comprehensive environmentally intelligent approach to recycling our garbage as a national public policy initiative.
A national recycling policy would be considerably more effective because it would not only include single-use plastic bags but also encourage the consuming public to recycle their paper waste products, bottles, aluminum cans, and other plastics not included in the act.
The proper disposal of these items will be considerably more effective in improving our environment and diminishing the substantial garbage that is often neglected and ultimately becomes a public nuisance and environmental threat.
More enlightened societies have adopted a recycling program as a normal part of life.
They recognize the need to encourage recycling as a regular, day-to-day activity of life.
Garbage disposal has become a new art form by accentuating the methodology of properly disposing of garbage.
Twenty-first Century garbage containers have been designed and manufactured to collect and separate paper, plastics, cans and bottles so that they can be adequately segregated and more easily and effectively disposed of.
Revisiting, rethinking and re-engineering our behavior
There is an urgent need for all of us to revisit, rethink, and reengineer our behavior regarding our protection of the environment and how we dispose of our garbage — all our garbage.
We cannot continue to accumulate the vast volumes of waste on these small islands without intelligently addressing how we will dispose of them in a scientific, sustainable style.
We must be proactive in adjusting our attitude and, ultimately, our behavior regarding single-use and other non-biodegradable plastics.
We can certainly be disappointed about how this well-intentioned policy was implemented.
We can be equally disgusted by the additional cost that we must incur as a result of this new public policy.
While it is a noble start, it requires considerable tweaking to ameliorate its deficiencies.
What is clear is that we cannot continue to pollute our islands with plastics, bottles, aluminum cans, and other equally undesirable products.
If we do so, we will be left holding a bag full of things that will be very difficult, if not impossible, for us to dispose of.
By then, it will be too late for us to recover from policies that lack comprehensive approaches to their implementation.
By then, we, and the generations to come, would suffer from today’s lack of a wide-ranging, long-term vision to guide us away from the devastation of what is becoming a worldwide plastic tsunami.
By then, it really won’t matter who is left holding what bag on these fragile islands that rank as the sixth most economic, social and environmentally vulnerable nation in the region, according to a 2019 Caribbean Development Bank study.
Last week, the prestigious Fodor’s Travel released its list of “17 Places That Prove Climate Change Is Real”: The Bahamas was number seven.
It really isn’t about who is left holding the bag or what kind of bag we should be holding.
To preserve and protect our islands there must be a well thought out, far-reaching and thorough policy crafted with intelligent consultation and implementation to ameliorate not only our plastic use, but all the negative and dangerous environmental challenges humans have created.
Only then will we start to sensibly address these issues and begin to restore the environment of The Bahamas to the pristine and perfect state with which the good Lord originally blessed us.
• Philip C. Galanis is the managing partner of HLB Galanis and Co., Chartered Accountants, Forensic & Litigation Support Services. He served 15 years in Parliament. Please send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.