Plastiki. Taxing a choking hazard

The nice lady at the till with caked make-up and barely-detectable smile greets me with a “Plastiki?” after she finishes scanning my loaf of bread and the recent issue of Noseweek, at my local Pick n Pay.

Funny – as a child, plastic shopping bags  were called ushekhasi, after the Checkers chain of supermarkets our parents frequented. Back then I imagined the name came from the sound a bag made when vigorously handled.

The cost of plastic carrier bags

In the good ol’ days before 2003, plastic bags were as free as the air we breathed or the TV we never paid for, and it was quite the news story when government ordered by law this business of charging our parents for ushekhasi, making these pieces of trash as valuable as the groceries they carried – in the minds of the grown-ups at least.

I got interested in the topic after Kenya recently announced an outright ban on plastic bags, with violations earning a sentence of up to four years and a fine of up to US$ 40,000. I believe this bodes well for dealers of illicit bags in the black market. It seems a tad excessive, but the Kenyan government is reportedly sick of pulling bags from the stomachs of dead cows, to avoid risk of contaminating the beef.  Besides  – the poor cows! In one reported case 20 bags were removed from a distressed animal.

So Kenya introduced a complete shutdown on all plastic bags entering the local market, to help protect the environment. According to an August 2017 BBC News story, many people prefer to comply with the ban than risk a massive fine or the alternative of a four-year jail term, and I find myself wondering why.

When South Africa introduced the plastic bag levy in 2003, it was in an effort to make us use less of them, but in the strange spirit of things South African we responded with a collective “challenge accepted”. According to a 2010 study by Dr Johane Dikgang at the University of Cape Town, the average 46 cents charge on a 24-litre bag isn’t enough to curb our appetite for these turtle-chokers, and the effect of the levy has diminished over the long term.

In appealing to our better nature, another effect government expected of us with the levy was that we would re-use the bags, but South Africans have found it inconvenient to carry them to the shops. Or so the UCT study reports. The bags that don’t end up lining city dumps make for good bachelor-pad rubbish bags, or the occasional impromptu glove for clearing out a triggered mousetrap.

The then Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism had hoped revenue generated from the levy would create jobs in the plastics recycling sector, but, to nobody’s surprise, the money ended up lining the coffers of Treasury – and the pockets of our retailers. A November 2016 news report in Independent Online (IOL) reported that between 2003 and 2014 the state had pocketed R1.1bn from sales of plastic bags, and around 5 billion schmeckles went to  retailers for ushekhasi.

With figures like this we are effectively throwing money away, and I can imagine that these bags might become tradeable currency in the post-apocalyptic near-future. These choking hazards have the uncanny ability to last from 500 to a thousand years, unless – wait for it – we recycle!

Money is also not an object since you pay only around 50 cents each time you say “yes” to the plastiki lady, and there is the added benefit of job creation. The Kenyan example is extreme, since it might lead to up to 80,000 jobs lost, according to manufacturers in Kenya; we should count ourselves lucky in this regard.

I myself have elected to buy large, woven bags with Orlando Pirates crossbones emblazoned on the side, – despite being a Chiefs’ fan. We all make sacrifices to save the environment.

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