Whenever the products of new inventions are introduced to the market, they are almost always presented as the solution to some problem. Marketing messages draw attention to the benefits that will be derived from their use and demonstrate how these benefits translate into adding value to the consumer’s experience.
When the modern plastic shopping bag made its debut almost 50 years ago following its invention in 1965 by Swedish engineer Gustaf Thulin Sten, it was presented as a more cost-effective and convenient alternative to paper bags, the dominant form of packaging used by stores and other retailers at the time.
Instead of a store owner in the United States having to fork out US$30 for 1,000 paper bags, which was the going price in the mid-1980s, he could get the same number of plastic bags for $24. Attracted by the prospect of reducing costs and saving money, retailers were quickly sold on the idea. By the end of 1985, plastic bags were in use at 75 per cent of American supermarkets.
The switch from paper to plastic bags also took off in Barbados around that time. However, what clearly was not envisaged was the environmental nightmare plastic bags would become in just a matter of decades. What was touted as a solution was actually a problem in the making. Evidence of the damage is mounting and it seems marine and on-land eco-systems of small islands are particularly at risk.
For this reason, the widespread use of plastic bags and the associated indiscriminate dumping by consumers is a highly relevant issue in our case. One reason why Barbados should take particular interest was its original leadership role in the promotion of sustainable development for small island states. This was reflected in our hosting of the first ever Global Conference on the Sustainable Development of Small Island States back in 1994.
Sustainable development involves caring for the environment in such a way that current generations are able to fully enjoy a country’s available natural resources without depriving future generations of a similar experience. The current heavy use of plastic bags poses such a threat and that is why an initiative being spearheaded by the Future Centre Trust from next month to reduce their use in the retail sector is particularly welcome.
Consumers opting to take a plastic bag will be asked to pay a small fee. As an alternative, retailers will promote the use of reusable bags just like our fore-parents used to do. The only difference, as persons familiar with Barbadian life in the 1960s and 1970s can attest, was that our fore-parents generally used card board boxes for transporting groceries from the village shop instead of bags.
Indeed, it was a common sight back then, especially on Saturdays when most shopping was done, to see women walking the streets with boxes of groceries skillfully balanced on their heads. These boxes were recycled as they were the original packaging material in which many grocery items came. Come to think about it, what our fore-parents were actually doing was practising environmental protection through recycling long before this name was affixed to the idea.
A lot of plastic bags which are indiscriminately dumped, sometimes end up in the sea around us. In some instances, plastic particles can also end up in our food, according to scientific findings. Marine pollution caused by plastic, not just from shopping bags but other forms such as drink containers, has emerged as a major environmental problem of our time. Some of this plastic is killing off marine life, such as turtles, which ingest it.
So serious is the problem that scientists point to the possibility of the oceans containing more plastic than fish by 2050 if decisive action is not taken. Up to a few years ago in another Caribbean island, it was a common sight to see a huge amount of plastic floating around in the main harbour whenever there was major rainfall. It came with the run-off water that had made its way from land into the sea.
While the problem in Barbados has not reached this stage, it is not an excuse to be complacent. Rather, it is an opportunity for decisive, pre-emptive action to ensure the problem never reaches this stage. We owe it to ourselves and future generations. Hopefully, the initiative to reduce the use of plastic bags is the first in a series of actions aimed at protecting our environment and ensuring that Barbados lives up to its reputation of being a leader in sustainable development where small island developing states are concerned.
Beginning next month with this small step, there is no reason why the eventual elimination of plastic packaging cannot be an objective we as a country can work towards achieving. If we seriously want to, we can.