08 May 2011

Plastic ain’t my bag! A very personal viewpoint from Hayley McLellan

Hayley McLellan

Two Oceans Aquarium Senior Bird Trainer Hayley McLellan is many things: She waddles for penguins, she cares deeply for our feathered friends and she’s one of the most passionate eco-warriors around (this goes for most of our staff contingent). Her friends call her the “bag lady”, but we think she’s a modern-day lady of principal! In this article, Hayley offers real alternatives to the plastic bag – plus: Two Oceans Aquarium Managing Director Dr Patrick Garratt issues a memorandum to all Aquarium staff: We have banned the plastic bag!

Rethink the bag

Marine animals are hard hit. Photo courtesy Photo courtesy thebiggoodbye

For the record I would like to state, rather obviously of course, that plastic has many extraordinary and important uses in our modern-day world, so I do practically support responsible production and consumption of this material.

The bag I refer to is the ubiquitous plastic shopping bag once, and even still today, rather indifferently labelled our “national flower”.

While acknowledging that the cause of litter and its knock-on effects in South Africa will not entirely be resolved by eliminating the availability of the plastic shopping bag alone, I strongly feel that this type of forceful legislation will go an exceedingly long way in solving many critical environmental concerns. It must also be declared that the bag is really not the problem here, but rather the behaviour of us humans …

As an individual I passionately advocate saying no to plastic bags at every opportunity, and encourage every other citizen to do the same.

You may ask, “Why on Earth?” Well, read on …

A sea sample retrieved by the 5 Gyres team. Photo courtesy 5 Gyres Institute

In 2004 Valli Moosa, our then-Minister of Environmental Affairs, showed excellent initiative by imposing a levy on the plastic grocery bag that we see in all shopping outlets.

Fantastic idea for the time, Mr Moosa! South Africa takes action! Even if it meant the average person on the street was the one being made to pay up, at least there were healthy intentions there.

Do you recall the general feeling around this new law? Most everyone was outraged! If my memory serves me accurately, we all had a 30-second conniption and then we swiftly recovered and went on with our daily lives … Simply incorporating yet another cost into our daily budgets, but for what gain, we should all have asked.

The obvious problem for me is that human conduct did not shift one iota, and this is what would have had a valuable effect on some of the issues at hand.

I logically believe this act had three, or more, intended outcomes:

  • to undertake to clean up our environment as the number of plastic bags drifting around was becoming unmanageable as well as embarrassing to South Africa as a country of otherwise magnificent natural beauty;
  • to create consumer awareness as to our mindless use and abuse of this item; and, importantly,
  • to create Buyisa-e-Bag, whose job it was (oh, and still is!) to generate recycling and educational programmes that would support all communities (rich and poor) to take responsibility for our use and disposal of these plastic bags as well as other plastic items.

So, did we achieve any of the above? To some degree, most certainly. In other aspects, most certainly not.

The following statistics were taken from a Carte Blanche report aired in March 2011.

  • Pre-bag-levy South African consumers were using approximately 10-billion plastic shopping bags each year. This figure is now down to 4-billion per year.
  • Buyisa-e-Bag has built seven of the 30 planned centres.
  • 13% of all levies collected goes to Buyisa-e-Bag: R156-million since 2004.

I remain eternally optimistic each time I am in a store and see others committedly and consciously using their re-useable canvas bags!

Buyisa-e-Bag made at least some effort to fulfil their duties and we can only trust that, with enough consumer pressure on them, they will effectively manage their systems and ultimately achieve all that it takes to honour the financial support they are receiving each and every day off profitable support of the bag by end-users. 

(It is relevant to note here that retailers make no money from the sale of these bags and that the large majority of the funds go directly to Buyisa-e-Bag for above-mentioned purposes.)

Of interest, the Plastics Federation of South Africa recently concluded its fifth survey into the recycling of plastics in South Africa for the period 2009-2010 and had this to report: “According to the results of this survey, there is a growing demand for recycled plastic as it is a product that has proven itself to be versatile, economic and reliable. The challenge for the future lies in educating the South African public about the importance of the recycling of their plastic waste and developing new markets and recycling methods.” 

Although our culture around and attitude towards recycling in this country is improving, it is useful to note that: “In 2009/2010 [only] 19% of the recycled plastic was high density polyethylene (PE-HD), used in milk bottles, fruit juice bottles, drums, tubs, closures, crates and plastic shopping bags.” (Plastic Federation Recycling Survey Results, April 2011). (Bold is author’s own comment.)

From this we can deduce that probably a very small percentage was made up of the bag.

Paper or plastic?

An artistic impression of plastic pollution found at sea, by Simon MAX Bannister

Neither, actually. It has been well documented that the varied resources required to manufacture paper bags are possibly equally as taxing on the environment as those needed for plastic.

It is also wise to continuously remind ourselves that plastic bags are made from fast-dwindling natural resources namely petroleum, coal and natural gasses. The time for alternative thinking is long overdue.

So?

It is of absolutely no significance whatsoever if I am prepared to so boldly state my position on this topic, fraught with scandalous debate, without some sort of a wrapping up of what can be done about it ... 

What would I like to see happen? Ultimately? Why, ban the bag, of course!

“Wow, what the bleep is she thinking?”

It’s really not so bizarre a suggestion …

Other nations that have achieved precisely this:

  • Bangladesh (March 2002)
  • Taiwan (January 2003)
  • Bhutan (June 2005)
  • Tanzania (2006)
  • San Francisco (March 2007)
  • China (January 2008)
  • Delhi (January 2009) 
  • Mumbai (January 2010)
  • Maldives-Baa Atoll (2009)
  • Philippines (January 2011)
  • Italy (January 2011)
  • United Arab Emirates (January 2012/13)

There are alternatives

  • Re-useable bags: If treated well, they can be used literally hundreds of times. Be sure to care for them as regular items of laundry and keep them clean in your health’s best interest.
  • Baskets: A wonderful way to return to the ways of old.
  • Make yourself aware of the impact of the plastic bag on the environment: This will probably be quite enough to convince you of the need to re-think. Our blog posts about Simon MAX Bannister’s Plastikos exhibit, and about the 5 Gyres Institute’s deep-sea work, offer some insight on the extent of the problem in the marine environment (in one word: dire).
  • Spread the word: Be passionate!
  • Look for campaigns to support, like rethinkthebag.org. Stand up for what is important to you.

Two Oceans Aquarium makes a stand

I am so proud to say that I work for an environmental organisation that has shown its commitment to rethinking the bag. Two Oceans Aquarium Managing Director Dr Patrick Garratt has made his appeal and all Two Oceans Aquarium staff members have pledged to no longer bring any plastic bags into the building.

Here’s Dr Pat’s memo to all staff:

We have created collection points for spare re-useable bags and all staff may help themselves to these bags for work or personal use at any time. With this simple project, we aim to both reduce the presence of plastic bags in the building as well as create awareness of the many issues surrounding this item. As a marine institute it is our duty, and in our best interests, to promote this way of thinking.

I utter the obvious in saying that we have only one planet and that there is no “away” when we throw…

Who knows? Perhaps one day we will be sending our refuse to Trash Planet X, but for now we really need to be more creative in our ways of disposal.

I can honestly say that I have not taken a plastic bag from a retail store for about the past five years and, wow, I’m doing just fine!

If that is one per week, then I have only saved about 240 bags in all that time, but multiply that by a conservative 29 400 000 (estimated number of South African adult shoppers – Wikipedia, 2003 census) and see what you get!  (You get 7 056 000 000.)

On a lighter note: Those in my circle affectionately (I trust) call me the “bag lady”. Yes, I do feel very deeply about this topic because it has done untold harm to our environment. For me, the plastic shopping bag is my “fall guy”, and the ideal symbol for our need to rethink our ways in this beautiful and fragile world.

What’s more, deep in my heart I know there are numerous others out there who feel as passionately about this issue as I do and are willing and longing to take a stand, we have merely yet to meet and to this I look forward!

In closing: There are so many truly worthy causes to support and it can be overwhelming as to which one to pick. Well, how about this fundamental one? A small change in your behaviour has the power to make a massive difference to your world. After all, when do you give up on something you care about?

Never …

Consider it a challenge!

The Two Oceans Aquarium would like to extend a challenge to all companies out there: Ban the plastic bag at your place of work and see how awareness spreads!

We’d even go as far as to extend the challenge to government: The world’s developing nations are leading the way in banning the plastic bag – shouldn’t South Africa be pioneers, too?

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