Bring your own bag: Is Guam ready for plastic-free life

 

 

 Ana Leoncio Kilroy, a resident of Agana Heights, stood at the end of a checkout counter at Payless Supermarket and handed her eco-bags to the grocery bagger. While she tries to be consistent with this habit, Kilroy admits to slipping up sometimes. “When I forget my own bags and have to use plastic bags, I make sure I recycle them by using them as trash bags,” Kilroy said.

 

The ban on single-use of plastic bags on Guam will roll into effect in January 2021, giving local residents a whole-year rehearsal before the island transitions to life without disposable carry-home plastic bags.

 

“I do think Guam is ready to switch. I use reusable bags all the time,” said  Ky Cleveland of Tamuning.

 

For some, it’s just a matter of getting used to a new orientation. “I think the plastic ban is good, but I also have trouble remembering my reusable bag when I shop. I’m so accustomed to the convenience of the plastic bag,” said Tamuning resident Phillip Gilbert.

 

Sen. Régine Biscoe Lee's “Choose to Reuse: Muñgnga Ma Ayek I Plastek” bill, now Public Law 34-109, bans the use of disposable plastic grocery bags, with limited exemptions. But Gilbert said the green policy must go beyond mere virtue-signaling. “How do you get rid of it completely? They still give plastic for produce and meats. It seems they need a solution for that too because I always have plastic bags in my reusable bags,” he said.

 

The new law mandates a 10-cent fee on disposable bags until they are fully banned in 2021. The original version of the bill called for a five-year transition but lawmakers have agreed to push the deadline — or Guam would fall behind its neighboring islands, where plastic bag use is either slowly or completely eliminated.

 

 “No one is ever ready until they have to be,” said Nadia Holm, a resident of Tamuning and environmental scientist with Hensel Phelps.

 

Having lived in Hawaii for five years, Holm has been accustomed to the plastic bag-free routine. “They started banning plastic bags and other products years ago. It was inconvenient at first, but you learn to live with it and get into the habit of planning and being prepared when you do things like grocery shop and then the ban isn’t an issue,” she said. “These things are necessary to force all of us into being better stewards to the environment.”

 

Is Guam really ready to embrace the plastic bag-free life? “I think so,” Lee said. “Alternatives for both single-use and reusable bags are widely available for retail consumers, wholesalers and small businesses alike.”

 

In 2020, businesses will do a test run. The mission for the upcoming year is to educate the public and publicize the impending ban, “so both customers and the private sector are prepared in advance and not caught off guard,” Lee said.

 

But the local community needs to look at the whole picture, according to Paul Tobiason, former president of the Recycling Association of Guam. “What about the other plastics?” he asked.

 

Despite a ban on the plastic carry-on bags, Tobiason noted that businesses still have to buy

plastic bags, such as the biodegradables, for the convenience of their customers. “Instead of banning plastic bags, why not have the business charge a dollar for every plastic bag used,” he suggested.

 

Imposing a prohibitive cost for plastic, he said, would have customers think twice and start bringing their own bags when they go shopping. 

 

Lee favors an outright ban, saying it would eliminate a significant portion of the island’s waste stream, rather than just reducing it.

The law states:

§ 54B003. Requirements for Disposable Carryout Bags at Retail or

27 Wholesale Establishments.

Retail or wholesale establishments may offer for sale or distribute reusable carryout bags to consumers. Retail or wholesale establishments shall not offer for sale or distribute disposable carryout bags unless such bags meet  the following criteria:

(a) Disposable carryout bags made of paper.

6 (b) Disposable carryout bags made of plastic, including plastics

7 made from bio-based polymers, shall be biodegradable or compostable; and

8 if otherwise not biodegradable or compostable, be made of high-density

9 polyethylene (HDPE) film marked with the SPI resin identification code 2

 

Millions of tons of plastic products find their way into the ocean. On Guam alone, the International Coastal Cleanup netted more than 5,000 plastic grocery bags from beaches around the island.

 

Tobiason said the government does not need to bide its time. The plastic problem exists now and must be solved now, once and for all. Lee, for her part, said if the community is ready to embrace the plastic ban sooner, then she would be thrilled and more than happy to introduce another bill to accelerate the current timeline.

 

Pay-Less Supermarkets are ahead of their time, according to Kathy Calvo, chairman and executive vice president of Pay-Less.

 

Since 1998, Pay-less has been selling reusable bags. It launched the Go Green campaign in 2008, offering a 5-cent rebate with each reusable bag. In 2012, Pay-Less created the Mission Zero Bags (MOB) campaign, which offers additional 10-cent rebate for every reusable bag used on Wednesdays, and 5 cents for every reusable bag used on any other days.'

 

“In addition, we have very aggressive Bag N’ Save ad specials which are exclusive to reusable bag users. This helps to create a value-added incentive for our customers to want to shop with reusable bags,” Calvo said. “From the initial launch of the campaign, we have had to constantly inform and educate our PayLess shoppers of our no plastic bag campaign.”

 

Pay-Less monitors the number of reusable bags used, sold and the rebates given to customers every week.

                                                                                                                         Photo by Mar-Vic Cagurangan

 

Pay-Less has since expanded its MOB Wednesdays to include no-distribution of not only plastic bags, but also including brown bags and corrugated boxes. “Pay-Less One in Dededo is our only location that does not distribute,” Calvo said.

 

As the program progresses throughout the years, Calvo said, Pay-Less has seen a growing number of customers who bring in their reusable bags to the stores not only on Wednesdays but every day, indicating a shift in customers’ shopping habits. “There is definitely a greater awareness of this campaign than previous years,” she said. “I believe we have contributed to a greater level of consciousness in the community through our educational efforts.”

 

Pay-Less also engages the schools to participate in the campaign through the “Bag Your School” contest.

 

Every week, Pay-Less monitors the amounts of reusable bags used, sold and the rebates given to customers from each store location, as well as the estimated number of plastic bags saved per week based on plastic bag orders and sales analysis.

 

Statistical analysis looks promising, Calvo said. “We have calculated that we have saved nearly 14,000,000 plastic bags from our landfill since the launch of the campaign in 2012.” she said.

 

While Pay-Less fully supports the plastic ban policy, Calvo noted some technical flaws in the law, which allows for biodegradable plastic bags and brown bags. At Pay-Less, this is currently the status quo. “We are advocating for the complete elimination of biodegradable and/or non-biodegradable plastic bags and brown bags,” Calvo said. “Although biodegradable plastic is preferred over plastic bags, there are drawbacks. Biodegradable plastic takes many years to break down in the landfill. The impact on our ocean is instant with coral and marine life. When it does deteriorate, it breaks down into tiny particles which can be dangerous to our ocean environment.”

 

Calvo said Pay-Less is creating a strategy to gradually add more days to the MOB program “until we eventually eliminate all biodegradable plastic and brown bag from distribution at all our store locations.”

 

Currently, there are local recycling centers that accept certain plastic materials on Guam. “If you look at the bottom of plastic containers, you will find a triangular of three arrows, and you will see a number,” Tobiason said. However, he noted that Pyramid, is the only recycling center that accepts these plastics.

 

For the most part, however, used plastic products wind up in the landfill. “People don’t care,” he said.

 

The inadequate incentives pose a challenge to the local recycling movement. “People are not keen on recycling because the payouts are so low,” Tobiason said. “If Guam could raise the cost per pound of recyclables, Guam residents will start caring enough to start to recycle more.”

 

Tobiason urged Guam leaders to update the recycling revolving fund and  work with the recycling centers to raise the payouts to at least $16 per bag. “You will start seeing truckloads of recyclables lining up at the recycling centers to get their money,” Tobiason said.

 

Lee agrees that the current payouts are low for the people to care about recycling. “That’s why it is important to enact as many ways as possible to otherwise eliminate or minimize what goes into the landfill,” she said. “Composting and banning certain items are other solutions to lengthen the life of each cell at Layon. Simply put, the less trash we put in, the fewer landfills we have to build.”

 

Guam residents also need to be educated on the sorting process, Gilbert said. “I think that some garbage gets mixed up with the recycles. A coworker of mine said they witnessed all the trash getting mixed with the recycle containers by the garbage man collecting at the mini NEX on NCTS. It makes me wonder if this is happening all over the island. Do we really have a recycle program that’s being used?” he asked.

 

While agreeing that the plastic bag ban is a good start Barrigada resident Gina T. Reilly said enforcement is a question. “Who will do the monitoring? Some people can be sneaky,” she said. In the end, she said, “it’s a matter of conscience and consciousness. With or without the ban, we have to be conscious of our environment. With our experience with our old landfill, it’s about time we impose a ban.”

   

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