The plastics ban pushback

The outrage emanating from some quarters over the single-use plastics ban, which took effect on January 1, 2020, shows the government was not successful in getting greater buy-in through a more aggressive public education campaign.

The outrage is also evidence that people who already feel burdened by higher taxes, exorbitant electricity costs and a general rising cost of living are already too angry and frustrated to accept that merchants are now charging 25 cents or more for plastic bags that were once free.

Many feel this is another effort by the government to tax them.

“The 25 cents was put in place during this transition period as a deterrent to encourage people to change their behaviors and bring their reusable bag,” Dr. Rhianna Neely-Murphy, senior environmental officer in the Ministry of Environment and Housing, told The Nassau Guardian this week.

The ban pushback is being fueled to some extent by misinformation that has been spread via social media.

Many people are just not tuned into the reporting on important measures as they are being debated in Parliament.

The opposition party often seeks to take advantage of that.

Although PLP MPs voted in favor of the new bill in November, PLP Leader Philip Brave Davis said yesterday the party does not support the legislation.

Davis described the new policy as “poorly planned” and “poorly rolled out”, and accused businesses of “taking more money from ordinary Bahamians” as he called for government to revisit the legislation.

It is worth noting, however, that PLP Deputy Leader Chester Cooper had cautioned the government at the time of the House debate about the risks of a close implementation date and the need to have buy-in from the public.

The Environmental Protection (Control and Plastic Pollution) Bill prohibits the import, distribution, manufacturing, possession and sale of single-use plastic bags and food containers.

The law allows exceptions for plastic bags used for several specific purposes, including: bags for waste disposal; compostable single-use plastic bags; bags intended to be used solely to contain wholly or partly unwrapped food for consumption, including fruits, vegetables, nuts, ground coffee, grains or candies; and bags intended to be used to solely contain live aquatic creatures in water.

The bill provides for a transition period of six months, during which businesses would be allowed to possess and sell prohibited single-use plastic bags to customers for a fee that ranges between 25 cents and $1.

Two years ago when the Ministry of Environment and Housing signed a memorandum of understanding with the Bahamas Chamber of Commerce and Employers’ Confederation’s Energy and Environment Committee, focused on the elimination of single-use plastics and styrofoam containers for food and beverages by 2020, Environment Minister Romauld Ferreira noted The Bahamas has an exacerbating plastic problem that holds significant economic and environmental costs.

He said plastics have likely entered the Bahamian food chain due to plastic products entering the ocean and being consumed by the fish that are consumed locally.

While his ministry did undertake a public education campaign, it was far from aggressive.

Many consumers — some of whom claim to be supportive of practices to benefit the environment — are upset over the fact that merchants are now charging for the bags. Some do not seem to understand that in so doing, these merchants are following the new law passed by Parliament.

Some people feel duped because the assumption is that merchants have already factored in the cost of these bags in the prices of their goods and services.

The Bahamas is not alone in experiencing a negative reaction to such a ban.

A July 2018 article posted on The Conversation U.S. and titled “Why plastic bag bans triggered such a huge reaction” noted that such bans are often met with claims of profiteering.

“This reaction is due to the supermarkets breaching their ‘psychological contract’ with consumers,” the article notes.

Unlike written legal contracts, it adds, psychological contracts are a set of “unwritten rules” or “expectations” exchanged between the parties in a transaction. This can be between an employee and employer, or a customer and a retailer.

“Shoppers began to realize that supermarkets were saving money (by no longer giving away bags for nothing), while they themselves incurred a cost paying 15 cents or more (depending on the type of reusable bag)… When there is a psychological contract breach, people can engage in revenge and retaliation.”

The Bahamas is experiencing a similar reaction.

Change is often not easy. In an environment where so many do not trust their government — and for good reason — change can be even more difficult.

We suspect that during this transition period, however, many more people will become comfortable with the ban and change their habits.

There is a bigger picture here. The single-use plastics ban is but a small step in producing positive environmental outcomes. It is important that the government take even more progressive action, like pursuing more seriously renewable energy options.

And it must work harder to get buy-in from the public on these critical issues.

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