The plastic bag ban is one for the bin

Manufacturers, unions, retailers and consumers are up in arms about the proposed ban on disposable plastic bags. This is being 'railroaded' through regardless of economic sense, without cost-benefit analysis, environmental impact assessment or meaningful public involvement. Why? So that government will have something 'world-beating' to crow about at the United Earth Summit in Sandton.

The ban will destroy existing capital investment and jobs and harm consumers, particularly the poor. It may even backfire and make government look dumb to the august August visitors. Whatever can have possessed the department of environmental affairs and tourism?

Ireland has a litter problem. The Irish department of environment has just started down the levy road with a 'plastax' of about R1.50 for every plastic bag you take home. Not, incidentally, banning small bags used for food wrapping. Plastics factories have been closing, and new investors have turned away because of the levy. But they expect to reduce the use of plastic bags by up to half quite rapidly. The levy may raise over £100 million a year, and government will supposedly spend this to help the environment. A rich country can afford to try out an unwise policy if its affluent (Irish) consumers will stand for it. What about a poor country?

India, too, has a litter problem. Some of its states recently tried banning thin plastic bags, but without much success. Local manufacturers ceased production, of course, but consumer demand remained. The public largely ignored the ban, so the police wisely failed to enforce it. Smugglers brought in plastic bags from neighbouring states and other countries, 'corrupting' under-paid excisemen with the usual bribes at India's crazy internal border posts. Naturally the ban failed to reduce littering. It was all rather reminiscent of how the Prohibition experiment boosted crime, boozing and 'scofflawry', which is American for disrespecting government.

Here, yes, we also have a litter problem, amongst a few other problems. Yet only 3% of plastic packets end up as litter. Banning them all is quite a heavy response to a few fluttering 'veldt-chickens' hanging on the fences in front of endless squatter shacks. Even if the ban works perfectly, the vast bulk of litter - paper, cardboard and metal - stills needs collection now and then. So why wipe out decades of packaging development and customer convenience without really solving the litter problem? Surely it would give a better (if false) impression just to clean up airport roads and central Sandton at Summit-time? And generally the unsightly litter is to be found on government property anyway. If the various levels of government were to pay more attention to their custodial duties of keeping public property clean and tidy there would be no litter lying around.

Various alternatives to the ban have been floated. One is to get manufacturers to pay a cent or two per bag into a fund like Collect-a-can, which would raise about R70 million a year. This could clean up any litter hot spots that public authorities fail to keep clean. Or teach anti-littering in schools. Or pay a cent or two for each bag returned for re-use, recycling, incineration or burial.

But the propaganda-urgency to regulate before the Earth Summit seems to have cut off all the protests unheard. The ministry has apparently proved inaccessible and unresponsive to reasoned advocacy, ignoring or not understanding the many real economic and other concerns of public lobbies. This raises a bigger issue than merely wiping out Nedlac's estimated 70 000 local jobs in order to import R4bn-worth of thick plastic bags.

Not for the first time, government is seeking to rule by decree, regulating a substantive issue without following due process and allowing meaningful public debate. Ministerial rule by regulatory decree always violates the principle of separation of powers. Legislation probably does not even exist to enable the Minister to regulate plastic packaging. Judging by recent nevirapine-events, a costly Constitutional Court challenge might just prompt government to revise the legislation anyway.

The proposed plastic bag ban merely demonstrates once more how bypassing the legislative process with discretionary rule by regulation can corrupt government. An unwise, ill-considered and probably unlawful ban is cooked up in a huge hurry – just to look good briefly on the international stage. Manufacturers close down production facilities, lay off workers and start importing thicker bags. Customer preferences are thwarted, and poor customers in particular are put to serious inconvenience. Thin bags are made illegally, or smuggled into the country. The police either ignore one more silly law or divert their scarce resources away from serious crime. In a small but not insignificant manner, South Africa's economic growth and prosperity are permanently crippled. What, in the name of poor voters, is the point of such an action?

Ten years back, Rio suffered the consequences of its eagerness to host the first Earth Summit. Brazil was lambasted for logging its rain forests and other 'environmentally unsound' activities. South Africans, too, may regret hosting the follow-up Summit, and not only during Johannesburg's 'winter of disruption'. In any case, we may deservedly be pilloried again as a 'polecat' nation for various 'inadequate and third-world' behaviours. It seems a pity that we could also be ridiculed for letting in a consumer-hostile and economically-disastrous packaging ban, which does not even pretend to solve the country's litter problem. Just so that government can claim to be 'doing something'.

Author: Jim Harris is a freelance journalist. This article may be republished without prior consent but with acknowledgement. The patrons, council and members of the Foundation do not necessarily agree with the views expressed in the article.

FMF Article of the Week 30 April 2002
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