Sunday, July 2, 2017

Plastic Everywhere, and No Solution in Sight

Before the plastic bag tax: Carrying plastic bags (probably full of more plastic bags) home from the supermarket.
After the bag tax: the more things change, the more they stay the same: Carrying plastic bags (probably full of more plastic bags) home from the supermarket.

Sackss of plastic bags and other trash in the Plaza San Victorino.
Nobody doubts that plastic bags are a problem. They little streets, plazas and parks, trash up rivers and clog sewers. And a lot of them end up in the ocean, where animals swallow them and choke to death. And then there are all the petroleum resources used to manufacture the bags, and the pollution generated during the process. All to make something which is often used just once, for a short time, and then discarded.

So, give Bogotá officials credit for recognizing the problem. If only they would try an effective solution.

First came 'educational' measures for stores. Some neighborhood stores put up signs encouraging customers to bring their own bags - which almost everybody ignored.

Worth something?
Then, on July 1 a bag tax kicked in - of 20 pesos -  or 6/10 of one U.S. penny. Nobody bothers to pick a 20 peso coin up off the street, nor do people carry them, making this tax meaningless. So, unless the same customer uses five bags, he likely won't get charged at all. At the same time, I don't see any practical way the DIAN can monitor how many plastic bags a store uses. (Expect a black market in plastic bags). So, stores will simply pass on to all of their customers the tax bill for the bags they report using, eliminating the tax's incentive quality.
The tax didn't discourage this shopper from packing her
shopping cart with bags filled with more bags.

All of this makes about as much sense as Colombia's policy to reduce carbon generation, in which the country simultaeneously taxes carbon to discourage its use, and also subsidizes fuel consumption and encourages oil and coal production.

It's no wonder that plastic bag habits are tough to change. Not only are plastic bags convenient, but a friend points out that giving them out has become a 'social gesture.' I couldn't count the number of times that a seller has chased after me or literally cried out in protest when I rejected his or her offer of a completely useless plastic bag to carry home a single apple, a candy bar or a box of aspirin. But the bag came from somebody's heart.

Taxes have effectively reduced plastic bag use in Ireland, some U.S. cities, and other localesbcxi. But those places have stronger legal systems and lower rates of corruption and black markets.

Perhaps a bag tax would work here if the government either enforced it using sting operations, or actually taxed the newly-manufactured bags.

'Please bring your own bag.' This sign, in a shop in La Candelaria, was removed once employees realized that the pllastic bag decree wouldn't be enforced.

A sign in a shop implores customers to save the planet by bringing their own bags.
Notice the woman's hand giving a customer a bag.
City workers hand out reuseable bags in La Candelaria. They gave the bags to anybody willing to sign for them, whether they needed them or not.
A proud woman with her free bags.

This older woman scored two bags. But will she ever use them? Could she actually carry one full of stuff?
The La Panamericana stores seem to have taken real measures. Here, a sign at the checkout counter saying they no longer will give out bags smaller than 30 by 30 cms.

Canvas bags for sale in La Panamericana.
The bag rule doesn't apply to neighborhood corner shops and traditional markets like this one.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

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