Serious problem, farcical solution
Updated: Aug 10
“So let me get this straight: I go to the grocery store and buy a pound of sliced ham in a plastic bag, a loaf of bread in a plastic bag, a gallon of milk in a plastic jug, a pack of napkins in a plastic wrap, a store-made salad in a plastic tub, a plastic bottle of mustard and bottle of ketchup, but they won’t give me a plastic bag to carry them home because the plastic bag is bad for the environment.”
On the surface, this internet meme is hilarious. While it’s entertaining, it makes you shake your head at the same time. Beneath the humor is a serious matter. It pretty much sums up the flawed logic behind the ban on single-use plastic bags. This concept is so memeable and the joke is on us.
To be honest, I do not know anyone who single-uses a plastic bag. Our instinct is to keep them for future use. With or without the law, we have a natural aptitude for recycling. Before the plastic bag ban was imposed on Guam, we used these much-maligned tiny sacks as trash bin liners, as lunch bags, as pouches for loose items and what have you. There’s a reason the plastic bag dispenser was invented. According to Ikea’s website, this item is a top seller.
The ban on single-use plastic bags went into effect on Guam in January 2021. The law prohibits the sale and distribution of disposable plastic bags, with corresponding penalties of $500 for the first offense; and up to $10,000 for offenses thereafter.
Most Pacific islands began implementing their respective plastic bag ban laws in 2018. Virtue-signaling ideas can spread globally like a pandemic.
In lieu of plastic bags, we are required to bring our reusables. We are compelled to buy one if we forget to bring one with us. Sure, forgetting is no excuse, but it happens. Now we have a mountain of reusable bags in our homes, including heavier, stitched-handled bags made of out of polypropylene—in other words, plastic.
How many reusable shopping bags has Guam imported from off-island since the plastic ban took effect? This is the unexpected crinkle resulting from the ban.
In reality, people on Guam just acquire more reusables but they do not reuse them enough to make them a true net-plus for the environment. They are still going to have to be disposed of someday. Guess where they will up when we start purging?
There is no barometer to gauge the success—if any— of this policy. In the Pacific region, the plastic garbage crisis continues to be a running story and an endless topic of discussions at world conferences. In June, world leaders gathered in Paris for the second negotiation meeting to review the UN Global Treaty to End Plastic Pollution, which, according to the organizers, “has provided another important step forward in global efforts to address the worsening plastic crisis.”
Certainly, there is a plastic garbage crisis. But our solution is myopic, focusing on the shopping bag which is just one form of plastic products the world produces. We have banned plastic shopping bags but not Ziplock bags, garbage liners and black trash bags. Almost every product is in plastic containers: detergent, cleaning products, shampoo, milk, soda, vinegar and condiments. Which makes the ban on plastic shopping bags a complete farce. Hence the internet meme.
Guam and other Pacific islands are at the mercy of the global corporate regime that manufactures their products the way they want to. We don’t produce these products, and banning their entry into our islands is out of the question. With or without the ban on single-use shopping bags, we are still accumulating other environment-unfriendly, single-use products. But for some reason, this aspect of the plastic crisis is being overlooked, hence not being addressed.
It is great to see Guam engaged in efforts to find solutions to pressing environmental issues. However, the plastic ban is a misdirected policy.
The mountains of debris— many of them made up of pre-typhoon garbage that residents never got around to tending to until Mawar came—at the old carnival site in Tiyan, reveal the true crisis: poor solid waste management on island.
While we demonize single-use products, the problem isn’t just about their material composition. It’s the fact that we use them once without the right infrastructure for collection and reuse. The Guam Solid Waste Authority doesn’t accept certain recyclable materials. (I have not even gotten a response from GSWA on the recycling bin I requested three years ago) You are left alone to deal with them.
Whatever happened to the Revolving Recycling Fund? How about investing in infrastructure to improve collection and recycling of single-use materials that cannot be designed out of circulation? This is a solution that seems to have been overlooked.