The single-use plastic bag came into existence innocently enough. It provided a quick and simple way for consumers to lug around their groceries in one go, making a second trip to the car unnecessary.

The plastic bag also came in handy for picking up doggy-doo or for the disposal of household trash after the bin liners ran out.

But, slowly, the once-loved bag has been transformed into a pest, one that both government and environmentalists are finding difficult to remove. Not even the plastic bag tax, which was introduced in 2003, has been able to eradicate SA’s unofficial national flower.

Data from the Council for Scientific & Industrial Research (CSIR) shows that only 7.2% of urban households recycle. Retailers and suppliers are reported to have made about R5bn from plastic bags between 2003 and late 2014.

Across the sea, in Australia, supermarket chains Woolworths and Coles announced last month that they would phase out single-use plastic bags from their stores by July 2018.

The idea has been thrown around locally, but nothing has yet been done.

"Changes of that sort are most successful when they are co-ordinated across the retail sector," says Pick n Pay general manager for sustainability Andre Nel.

"We would be happy to be part of any discussions on ideas to improve the environment. But any change would need to ensure that customers could still get their groceries home safely and securely. That’s not so easy in SA, where rates of car ownership are much lower than they are in Australia, for example," says Nel.

The plastic habit will be hard to break.

As one consumer remarks: "When the teller asks: ‘Plastic?’ I automatically say yes, because it’s not expensive and it’s [an effort] to carry my shopping on my own — especially when I just want to nip into the shops after work."

Woolworths head of sustainability Justin Smith says many shoppers have highlighted their concerns about plastic packaging.

"However, we have not seen a decline in plastic bag usage despite our promotion of the reusable bag," he says.

Both Pick n Pay and Woolworths say the money made from the charge is not pocketed but paid to the suppliers of the bags, who in turn pay the levy to the state.

Smith says the current levy is 8c.

Shoprite says its Checkers supermarket chain is the only one in SA that has a shopping bag made of 100% recycled material.

"Shoprite is also rolling out bags made from 100% recycled material in its own stores in the Western Cape. The progress of the roll-out to the rest of the country will be determined by the availability of material that can be recycled by the manufacturer," it says.

The CSIR says the latest available statistics show that the state collected R1.1bn between 2003 and August 2014.

The money collected from the plastic bag levy can be directed into any other government activity and is not ring-fenced for recycling or environmental issues.

Countries that have banned the bag include Rwanda, Bangladesh and Mauritania.


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