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Say no to plastic bags

February 3, 2010

There was a news report published in the inside pages of this paper last week, which was sadly largely ignored by other media networks.

The Muntinlupa City Council has enacted an ordinance banning and regulating the use of plastic bags, Styrofoam and styropor materials in business establishments in the city. The ordinance was signed by Mayor Aldrin San Pedro and will officially take effect next year. The one-year reprieve is meant to ensure that business establishments and the citizenry are prepared to implement the ordinance.

What this means is that effective next year Jollibee and McDonald stores in Muntinlupa will no longer be serving spaghetti in styropor containers and softdrinks in plastic glasses. Stores in Alabang will no longer be using plastic bags.

Finally, some concrete action to protect the environment! I commend the city council of Muntinlupa for manifesting political will. It’s really about time we stop using plastic and styropor materials in urban centers, particularly Metro Manila. Plastic is non-biodegradable and takes a long, long time to disintegrate. It’s one of the major reasons why we have polluted creeks, rivers, and bays.

Metro Manila produces tons of plastic garbage every day. All our fastfood chains use plastic and styropor for food packaging—from the coffee cups and glasses, to the forks and spoons, to plates and takeout bags. All our vendors—from the major retailers in the Makati Commercial Center, to the hawkers in Divisoria, down to the neighborhood sari sari store, to the guys selling pirated DVDs, and the manongs hawking boiled corn and peanuts in the our streets—they all use plastic bags. Most of the stuff does not even get recycled. They go straight to waste baskets and consequently end up as landfill that won’t get absorbed by the soil for thousands of years, as materials that clog our waterways and cause flooding, or as toxic material that kills many creatures such as sea turtles and dolphins that unwittingly ingest them.

The really tragic thing is that the use of plastic bags or styropor can be avoided and is often unnecessary. Most of us simply use them out of habit. The problem is that many establishments don’t train their employees on how to reduce the use of plastic when wrapping merchandise.

For example, I have always been amazed that National Bookstore uses two types of plastic to bag purchases of their customers. They first wrap the books, pens and other purchases in their standard red plastic bag with their store logo and then place the whole thing in another bag—a transparent white bag with handles on them. I can understand the need for bags with handles; customers need to be able to carry their purchases with a little more ease. What I don’t understand is the need to wrap purchases first in separate red plastic bags before placing them in the white transparent bag with handles.

To be fair to National Bookstore, it did launch a unique promo a few years back. The promo encouraged their customers to buy red environment-friendly recyclable cloth bags, which, if customers used every time they buy from the store entitled the customer to a rebate. The problem was that the bags were hideous (in red!) and to be frank about it, the store seemed to have given up on the promo because it just stopped it. In addition, Powerbooks, which is National Bookstore’s sister company, does use biodegradable paper bags. I wonder why National Bookstore does not use paper bags as well.

Every time I would buy from tiangges or even from other retailers, I would suggest to the cashier to just put my new purchases into the plastic bags I was already carrying so that we would be using less plastic. Some would show appreciation but most would actually look at me with a curious expression on their face as if wondering if something was wrong with me. I am told most people actually want to leave the store with more plastic bags probably because they want to show off their purchasing power or because they use the plastic as trash bags at home.

There have been times when I was actually told by store cashiers that they weren’t allowed not to wrap purchases in their standard store packaging because that served as their security control mechanism. Apparently one can be suspected of having filched merchandise or of being a shoplifter if one walks out of the store with goods not wrapped in the store’s standard plastic bag.

The key is to encourage people to use recyclable bags. There was a time, not very long ago although I think, when there were groups that produced these bags and gave them away. These recyclable bags were such a big thing that they were standard giveaways at Christmas and special occasions. The problem with these recyclable bags was that they were often shamelessly tacky in design or were walking advertisements of some products or political ambitions no one would want to be caught dead carrying them. Ironically, what happened was that these bags ended up as trash themselves.

Some establishments did come up with stylish environment-friendly bags. SM even commissioned artist Manuel Baldemor to do the artwork for their green bags. The problem was that these bags didn’t come cheap. Unfortunately, not very many people were willing to pay the price. For many people, paying money when plastic bags were available for free just didn’t make sense.

We should follow the example of many countries in Europe where business establishments do not provide plastic bags automatically. The first time I was in Berlin, Germany in the early nineties, I was at a loss when I discovered at the checkout counter that stores didn’t provide plastic bags to customers. Since I wasn’t carrying my own bag, I was directed to go to the customer service counter where I had to ask for a plastic bag from a rather stern-looking German employee who gave me a short lecture on caring for the environment.

My feeling is that people can be weaned from using plastic when forced to do so. Business establishments can be encouraged to be more environment-friendly if required to do so.

This is why I truly welcome the move of the City Council of Muntinlupa to ban plastic bags, Styrofoam and styropor materials from the city. It’s definitely a step in the right direction. I hope the other city councils in Metro Manila follow Muntinlupa’s example. –Bong Austero, Manila Standard Today

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