South Africans use approximately eight billion plastic shopping bags every year. Considering 96% of these end up in landfill after an estimated short 20 minutes' use, for the sake of our environment, our life support system, we need to strongly reconsider our unconscious use of this single-use item.

In 2014 I began a very exciting journey involving SPAR Western Cape and the Two Oceans Aquarium's Rethink the Bag campaign. This major grocery retailer recently entered into a long-term partnership with the Aquarium, committing to work together to further the objectives of the campaign, one of which is to promote long-life, reusable bags made by local communities and businesses.

Uniting these two valued brands is proving to be successful in our engagement with consumers, showing that there is a different way to shop that is beneficial to the planet. We salute SPAR Western Cape for being the first retailer to come on board with our vision of a plastic-shopping-bag-free South Africa! We believe that the first retailer to blaze this trail with us will make history in waste management in South Africa.

Cape Quarter SPAR bag-swap zone

July 3, annually, is International Plastic Bag Free Day and a significant event in the calendar for any major retailer considering doing away with the ubiquitous plastic shopping bag. The bag-swap event, which SPAR ran throughout the Western Cape province this year, revealed genuine consumer interest and some impressive numbers, too. Customers were encouraged to bring in 10 plastic shopping bags to swap for one SPAR reusable bag.

In all, SPAR stores gave away 11 112 reusable bags, meaning that 111 120 plastic shopping bags were returned to stores! Most of these bags will be recycled, bearing in mind that not all plastic shopping bags are able to be recycled as they either jam up recycling machinery, or contain a high component of chalk filler that reduces the cost of the bag to manufacturers.

Cape Quarter SPAR reusable bag choices

The action of choosing to use a few long-life bags in perpetuity can serve many purposes. First of all, you, the customer, save a substantial amount of money each year. Calculating how many plastic shopping bags you may purchase each year reveals that many, quite stylish, reusable bags may be enjoyed instead. Constantly using your reusable bag to shop inevitably sparks a heightened consciousness.

Montagu SPAR plastic bag drop-off point

The benefits, as I have experienced them, can include becoming more aware of all our excessive packaging choices; refusing any type of unnecessary plastic bag with a variety of purchases, not just groceries; reviewing the cleaning products, both home and personal, that you choose off the store shelves month in and out; and beginning a concerted recycling behaviour change both at home and work. It's quite amazing what one action can lead to – possibly many positive unintended consequences.

Most SPAR store owners and managers embraced the bag swap as a positive event for all involved. The customers who took part also felt they were actively making a good choice for the environment.

Some of the stores that stood out were:

  • Kuilsriver SUPERSPAR – 400 reusable bags given away
  • Rosmead – 400
  • Malmesbury – 456
  • Riversdale – 460
  • Royal Ascot in Milnerton – 560
  • Breedevallei KWIKSPAR, a small store in Worcester – 600

"The campaign was well received by customers and our store owners, so I'm sure we will be repeating it," said Peter Williams, manager of events and promotions: SPAR Western Cape Distribution Centre.

Montagu SPAR's happy cashiers

The cashiers are part of the solution in actively powering this campaign, as they face shoppers' daily actions when it comes to choosing what we carry our purchases out of the store in. By offering a plastic bag as an absolutely last resort, cashiers could well shift the way we behave in this regard.

Plastic bag bans in 2016

Read more about the Rethink the Bag campaign here.

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