Friday, May 27, 2011

Bogotá's Plastic Bag Problem

Bogotá baggy trash
A turtle eating a plastic bag. 

As in most big cities, in Bogotá plastic bags have evolved from a convenience to a curse. They fill the trash and overflow the city dump. They drift into the street, where they look ugly and plug up storm grates, causing flooding. And they can float into rivers and down to the sea, where sea turtles and other animals swallow them and choke to death.

All of that in addition to the fact that lots of energy and natural resources are used to make plastic bags, which are usually used only once and then thrown away.

Bags fill a gutter in
San Victorino. 
To try to change this situation, Bogotá's environmental authority recently issued a decree under which bag manufacturers, stores and supermarkets are supposed to reduce their production and use of plastic bags over the next several years.

Oh, how I wish it would work - but it isn't likely to.

Like all other businesses, selling more bags earns bagmakers more money - so they aren't going to voluntarily cut back. Bags do cost stores money, but putting every little item into one bag, if not two, has become such an expected social courtesy for retailers, like saying 'hi', that, instead of resisting the practice, they embrace it.

For a customer, refusing a bag is often a battle, even when whatever one is buying, like a sack of granola, comes in its own perfectly good bag. Or, when something, like a mango, has absolutely no need to be bagged at all. Salespeople often seem deeply, personally offended when one rejects their offering of a bag, as tho giving away that bag justified their lives. I haven't forgotten the near panic on the face of one man who'd just sold me a bag of granola, for which I'd rejected his bag at least twice.

"But the bag!" he insisted, almost pursuing me into the street. "Don't you want a bag?" I suppose that letting me leave without a bag violated some sort of moral order of decency.

Someday, perhaps someone will calculate the amount of person hours lost to store attendants looking for, fumbling and fitting those totally unnecessary bags. 

Can you see what's in this bag? 
Other motives for bagging are even more bizzare. The other day in the fruit market, a customer beside me had his small fruit purchase safely in a plastic bag, and then asked the seller for another bag.

"Don't worry, that bag won't break," she assured him.

"But I don't want people to see what I've bought," he complained, and got a second bag.

Are fruits so shameful that he needs to hide them from strangers? Or so valuable that they might get him mugged?

They should ban plastic bags, the fruit seller told me - but continues handing them out.

Anti-bag signs in Las Nieves market. 
Incredibly, I've heard the same justification at a neighborhood bread store, where the employees routinely double- and triple-bag bread loaves "because people don't want others to see what they've bought."

At the same fruit market a cheese seller has posted one sign about the environmental impacts of plastic bags and another advising 'I charge for the second bag.' But she continues giving out bags.

"I tell people to reuse them," she explained.

In another neighborhood store the other night a man was buying two small items.

"Do you really need a bag for those?" the employee asked.

"Oh," the man responded, surprised, "are you recycling.?"

"Yes," the employee replied, even tho not using the bags at all is a much better option than recycling.

The man walked out with his purchases gripped in his hands. A tiny victory. He'll have the corner store to thank when he has less trash to put out.

I still see abuelitos and abuelitas carrying canvas bags to the market. But, sadly, that custom is dying out with them.

Several years ago, after discussions with environmental authorities, big supermarkets started using bags which are supposed to biodegrade when exposed to sunlight. That's a good way to keep them from floating forever in streams and oceans. But most bags fill up space in landfills, where they remain for centuries, without ever again seeing sunlight. According to environmentla authorities, Bogotá dumps 840 tons of plastic into the city's Doña Juana dump every day, and most of that consists of bags.

Unfortunately, social pressures and gentlemen's agreements will do little to reduce bag use. And the environmental authorities' voluntary agreements with bag makers and stores will only end up producing a black market for bags, so that they can show a false reduction while buying bags under the table. Bogotá and other cities need to address this problem by taxing bags. Once stores discover that using bags really costs them, they'll cut back.

A Frenchman, in Paloquemao market, shows off an 'ecological shopping bag.'
The man had filled it with plastic bags of fruit, but removed them when someone pointed out the contradiction. 
By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

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