There has been a very active dialogue about supermarkets considering charging for plastic bags. Well, everyone cites the example of Ikea and how they now charge for plastic bags and how that is benefiting the environment. Well, Ikea is different from a supermarket and in a way it does not really have competition. One thing I am curious is how much money they raise each year from selling plastic bags. Then we will be able to calculate and compare the plastic bag usage before and after WWF (the charity that sold the idea to Ikea).
Now supermarkets are different, they face a lot of competition and they tend to act like an oligopoly. They make decisions based on what they think other supermarkets will do. In this case, NTUC Fairprice and Diary Farm (Cold Storage, Market Place, Giant, Shop & Save and even 7-Eleven) will be looking at each other. I don’t think they pay much attention to Sheng Siong. If one charges for plastic bags and the other doesn’t, will the customers stop coming? So they say, they will start charging only if the enviornment ministry dictates so.
Now there is one other discussion going on, and it is a discussion on rubbish. Most Singaporeans will tell you that they do recycle the plastics bags from the supermarkets. They use them as rubbish bags. What will we do if the supermarkets stop providing plastic bags? How will we throw our rubbish? Since, the supermarkets sell them at 10 cents each, I can get them cheaper at a store like SKP.
So if all groups are actually listening. The issue is not about charging for plastic bags. The issue is what do we do with our rubbish. Maybe a starting point is for supermarkets to start giving out biodegradable plastic bags. In doing so, supermarkets will be doing everybody a major service. Business must learn to contribute to society by taking the path of least resistance.
Enough about plastic bags, I want to talk about paper bags now. A few years ago, I was on holiday in Tasmania, I learnt something about the environment and the importance of conservation. When we bought something from a shop, my wife wanted to recycle a plastic bag we received when we bought something at the Melbourne airport. When she pulled out the plastic bag, everything in the shop seemed to have stopped in time. The locals who noticed just stopped and gave her dagger eyes.
When we left the shop, we still could not figure out what exactly happened, but we noticed everywhere we went, we received paper bags. The Tasmanians are environmentally very conscious, because everyday they see the impact in the world they live in.
The guided pointed out to a brown patch on top of a mountain. He told us that up there is a rainforest right in the mountain and the reason it is brown is because the entire rainforest has died. There was no water.
He pointed out to a beautiful rock face and said “see that dip at the top? there used to be a waterfall there.”
We stayed in a motel in a small town and we used and wasted their water. I picked up a newspaper the next day and I saw the name of the town in one article. If it does not rain within the next week, that town would have completely run out of water.
Everyday, our journey was an adventure and the driver listened to the radio all day to determine if the route we plan was still safe to travel on. There was a bush fires burning in some of the key areas. One morning, we did drive through an area where the fire burnt through just the day before. I saw trees burnt, the ground was black. I even saw what used to be houses.
As I look at the discussion we have in Singapore, plastic bags seem like a very trivial discussion. We are not like the Tasmanians where we see the effects of what we are doing to the environment. Most of us do not feel it. Our concerns are our individual needs.
And in the context of all things, this is funny, but our immediate needs is plastic bags to throw our rubbish. So supermarkets and all other retailers, please give us biodegradable plastic bags for our shopping. Otherwise, someone else may have to care about the environment for us.