The Scandal of The Plastic Bag: Killing our environment one transaction at a time

Conniel Malek, Director, True Costs Initiative

For as small and innocuous as plastics bags seem, their impact on humans and the environment is both astronomical and conspicuous. The solution to plastic bag waste must be systemic, which holds corporations and governments accountable for weak or non-existent management plans and weak environmental protection policies.

Here in the US, it is typical to walk into a pharmacy or grocery store and leave with your purchase in a plastic bag labelled with the store’s insignia.  For the most part, you won’t find that in Jamaica.  Instead, it is typical to receive your purchase (no matter how small) in an opaque, black plastic bag known colloquially as a “scandal bag”.  Explanations for the origin of the “scandal bag” vary.  One theory is that shoppers decided that the previously popular transparent plastic bags revealed their purchases and personal business to everyone, and us being Jamaicans, we just had to find a nickname for the preferred opaque black bag – hence the name scandal bag.  Regardless of its origin, it is undoubtedly a staple of Jamaican culture and some would even call it a Jamaican “treasure”.  But, recent environmental disasters resulting directly from plastic bag use and overuse highlight that it is anything but innocuous and anything but a national treasure.  The true scandal is our planet’s dependency on plastic bags - that despite what we know about their devastating impact on the environment we continue to make, consume and thoughtlessly dispose of them, tainting our land, sea, and air at rapidly disturbing rates.

There is no more recent heartbreaking example of the havoc that plastic bags wreak on our environment than the recent news about the 80 sopping wet,  plastic bags which lined the floor of an operating room in Thailand after they were pulled from the stomach of a pilot whale found stranded on a beach in Songkhla, Thailand.  Thai scientists confirmed that the whale probably swallowed the plastic, confusing it for food.  There is widespread outrage now, but we lie to ourselves if we say that we didn’t know that plastic would cause this harm at sea and on land. Plastic pollution is so pervasive that by 2050 it is expected to outweigh all the fish in the sea.  One study found that 8 million metric tons of plastic enters the ocean every year from land. We’ve all seen the images of the infamous South American garbage dump located in Brasilia, Brazil – the world’s second biggest garbage dump.  The dump, which contains untold amounts of garbage discarded in plastic bags and otherwise, has created its own underclass of citizens - garbage pickers or “catadores” - and has led to tremendous social, economic and environmental problems.  

It is all too easy to overlook the human impact of plastic bags and plastic in general.   In Jamaica the average person uses more than 300 bags a year.  In Caribbean countries, it is extremely common to burn plastic bags full of garbage which can cause forest fires and eventually release toxic hydrogen cyanide, which can enter the food chain.  Also, the bags that aren’t burned block waterways, creating breeding grounds for mosquitos in these waterways which contributes to the spread of diseases like dengue fever. While we cannot be certain what level of plastic contamination can harm humans, scientists have found microplastics in 114 aquatic species, and more than half of those end up on our dinner plates and there is enough research to show that the fish and shellfish we enjoy are suffering from the omnipresence of this plastic. For as small and innocuous as plastics bags seem, their impact on the human and the environment is both astronomical and conspicuous.

“For as small and innocuous as plastics bags seem, their impact on humans and the environment is both astronomical and conspicuous.”

Efforts by local environmental advocacy groups in Thailand such as Thai Whales have made significant strides raising awareness and influencing public policy to halt marine devastation from plastic products, including plastic bags.  Similarly, in Jamaica, creative local efforts have led to the country’s “Nuh Dutty Up Jamaica” campaign (“Don’t Dirty Up Jamaica”) campaign.  The scandal bag and all plastic bags should become a relic of the past though and it should not take the horrific death of an innocent whale to get the attention of the NGO community and funders.

It is easy for funders to selectively throw money at the problem – choosing to invest in either aggressive (but often unhelpful) recycling efforts, advocacy to reduce plastic pollution of waterways, sounding the alarm at the statistics, highlighting the most recent environmental plastic related disaster or even working with governments to incentivise plastic bag alternative schemes etc.   But the solution must be systemic.  We must find meaningful leverage points to undermine and influence the social and cultural and economic factors which continue to make the plastic bag a viable product.  We must support groups which hold corporations accountable for weak or non-existent management plans and hold governments accountable to their people for weak environmental protection policies.  We also need to ensure that the solution has local groups and communities at the centre since they are the ones who know exactly how this type of insidious pollution is affecting everyday life and will have the best ideas for tackling this issue.  Failing to take this kind of systemic approach will lead us to treat only the symptoms of the problem without creating any long-term solutions.

There is no reality show, no television series or political scandal as riveting as the dire environmental and social reality we all wake up to each day.  We must stop the scandal bags. We must stop the scandal.