Wendy Knowler masthead
August 6 2012 at 10:46

One of the topics that saw the English media briefly stray from its Olympics coverage last week was the call by environmental groups for a levy to be introduced on “single-use” plastic bags.

The English still get given free plastic bags by their supermarket chains, and the call to put an end to that comes in the wake of the news that the supermarkets gave out 5.4 percent more of them last year – 8 billion – than in 2010, many of them ending up as litter.

Ring a bell? Nine years ago South Africans stopped being given free plastic bags by supermarkets.

The government decreed that the bags should be thicker – at least 24 microns – to make them re-usable, in the hope that fewer would end up littering our urban and rural landscapes as our unofficial national flower.

And there was a feel-good aspect to the new dispensation, too – a levy on each bag, then 3c, collected by Sars, would go towards the setting up of a Section 21 company called Buyisa-e-Bag (buyisa meaning “give back”) as a joint initiative |of the government, labour and business.

Buyisa-e-Bag’s aims were, to quote the Department of Environmental Affairs: “The expansion of waste collection networks, the establishment of rural waste collection SMMEs, job creation, improving skills and re-skilling workers in the plastics field.”

I reported on all of this at length at the time, and heard many a government official wax lyrical about what a win-win deal this was.

Well, it didn’t happen. Sorry to be a downer when we’re basking in Team SA’s Olympic triumphs, but we’ve been had.

Buyisa-e-Bag was wound up at the end of last year, having pretty much failed to accomplish anything, supposedly because of some very complicated red tape problem to do with the way the company was set up. So much for giving back.

According to government statistics, plastic bag recovery for recycling has remained ridiculously low – less than 5 percent – since the levy was introduced.

So we’re still paying for plastic bags; an unregulated amount which varies from supermarket to supermarket.

What is regulated is the levy – now 4c a bag, paid to Sars by the plastic bag manufacturers. Sars in turn pays that money to the National Treasury.

We’re jointly paying about R150 million a year. And what does Treasury do with that money?

Well, I have asked, but the department’s spokesperson hadn’t responded to my query at the time of writing.

A Pick n Pay spokesman told Consumer Watch: “We have not had any updated information from government regarding how this levy is spent, or of the establishment of any recycling plants funded by the levy.”

So, we know that the government is winning, because they’re getting a nice stream of revenue they didn’t get before 2003 when we began paying for plastic carrier bags. And they’re apparently not spending it on recycling initiatives to benefit the environment and create jobs.

Are the supermarket groups winning, too? After all, plastic bags were a massive cost to the industry before 2003, and now they charge us for them – and they get to determine how much.

That was one of the questions I asked all four major supermarket groups last week: “Minus the levy, does that leave the company with |a profit or break-even on each bag, given that prior to the introduction of the levy, the supermarket groups bore the cost of the albeit thinner bags?”

Three denied making a profit on the bags…

Pick n Pay: “We make no profit on the bags.”

Shoprite/Checkers: “The Shoprite Group has been selling the regulated bags below cost price since the inception of the law in 2003 as part of its commitment to its customers.”

Woolworths: “The bags are not a profit stream for us.”

And Spar was decidedly cagey: “We can appreciate that this is of public interest… but our competitors would be even more interested…”

And here’s the really sad bit: Whereas the number of plastic bags dispensed by supermarkets took a radical dip when they acquired a price tag in 2003, the years since have seen the numbers climb again.

It seems we South Africans have generally got used to paying for plastic bags, and we’d rather do that than go to the trouble of taking our own reusable bags with us when we go shopping.

So bearing in mind that the plastic bags are a lot thicker than they were pre-2003, we’ve actually gone backwards – there is effectively a lot more plastic landing up in landfills, in the form of supermarket carrier bags, than before the environmental initiative was launched.

Which means, of course, that the other winner is the plastics industry, which is churning out all this extra, thicker plastic.

Only the Shoprite group, which is patronised by mostly middle- to lower-income consumers, reported a “slight” drop in the demand for plastic bags. “This may indicate that customers are either re-using the bags, or are making use of durable bags more frequently.

“But many customers still purchase shopping bags on every shopping trip.”

Here’s what the big four are currently charging for a standard |24-litre carrier bag:

PnP: 39c

Spar: 36c

Shoprite Checkers: 39c

Woolworths: 44c

And contrary to some consumers’ suspicions, the bags haven’t “got thinner” in the past nine years – all four groups are still selling bags of at least 24 microns thick, as legislated.

The same can’t be said for many smaller retailers of all descriptions. Some even charge for their too-thin carrier bags – the ultimate consumer rip-off.

Given that the idea of charging shoppers for thicker, re-usable plastic carrier bags was to motivate us not to acquire a fresh stash of plastic on every shopping trip, which would end up in the landfills, I think the retailers should hike the price for each bag to at least 50c, and donate the profit to an environmental cause of their choice.

That way we might actually achieve something “green” as a nation out of our shopping bag habits, despite our government’s spectacular failings in this regard.

Make a difference – one recyclable carrier at a time


Meanwhile, if you really want to play your part in sparing the landfills, and the environment, from millions of discarded plastic bags – and, in some cases, make a meaningful contribution to a worthy cause – invest in a sturdy non-plastic shopping bag.

We’re spoilt for choice:

- Pick n Pay’s “green” bags come in a variety of colours, and R1 from the sale of each one goes to the company’s Kids in Parks programme, which has allowed more than 30 000 children to visit our national parks.

The company has also partnered with the Township bag enterprise which sees between 60 and 80 women working in seven co-operatives in Cape Town townships, producing the limited-edition bags.

- Spar sells a “huge” range of eco bags in its stores countrywide.

- The Shoprite Group currently sells a R1.50 durable brown paper bag in its Western Cape stores and will be rolling this out nationally if shoppers take to it. It can hold up to 12kg and is also suitable for damp items such as milk sachets and frozen goods.

- Woolworths has produced a range of R29.95 sturdy carrier bags in response to SA’s environmental threats, with R10 from each sale being donated to various causes:

Save the Painted Dog: R450 000 donated to the African Painted Dog conservation, led by the Wildlife ACT Fund.

Save the Cheetah bag: R420 000 raised so far for cheetah conservation, led by the Wildlife ACT Fund.

Save the Rhino bag: 100 000 bags sold since September 2010, with a donation of R1m having been made towards the purchase of anti-poaching equipment.

The new Rhino Bag, launched last month, will see R10 of every sale donated to the Wildlife ACT fund |to support a project aimed at boosting the population growth of black rhino in SA.

Giving praise where praise is due helps improve service levels


Since we’re all currently bursting with national pride, I thought I’d echo the mood by sharing some tales of heartwarming customer service.

First, a commendation of my own, witnessed on a flight on our national carrier, SAA, about 10 days ago.

One of the cabin attendants working in economy class on SA542 from Durban to Joburg that morning didn’t do anything spectacular like help deliver a baby or calm panicked passengers during a patch of turbulence.

On the face of it, all he did was his job. Directing passengers to their seats, going through the safety drill, serving refreshments.

But it was the way he did these things, his general demeanour and his energy, which set him apart.

Zakhele Mpanza was upbeat, full of smiles, caring, and clearly loving his job – and most passengers responded to him with matching warmth.

I saw him help an elderly woman – who’d recently had a knee replacement, I later learnt – to her seat. He fetched a blanket for her, made sure she was comfortable, then leant down slightly and said something like: “Now if you need anything at all, you just let me know…”

If they hadn’t been different races, you could have been forgiven for assuming she was his grandmother.

What Zakhele displayed, apart from competency and passion for his job, was great empathy for his passengers.

And empathy, in my view, is what elevates service from acceptable to exceptional.

I hope SAA appreciates him.

Second, Edward Carman wrote to commend Garmin Southern Africa for “going above and beyond the expectations of reasonable customer service” by giving him a free replacement for his broken, out-of-warranty heart-rate strap.

He took the broken strap to the company’s Joburg service centre last week. Not only was it out of warranty, but he’d bought it overseas, so he was fully expecting to pay for a repair or replacement.

Instead, the company replaced the strap, and refused payment.

“These straps are not cheap – more than R500 – so this definitely counts as exceptional service in my book,” Carman said.

Okay, so this third “above and beyond” good-service story concerns not a local company, but Amazon.com of the US, but it deserves a place on this page.

Tracey Joubert of Howick in KwaZulu-Natal had two Kindles in the family go faulty recently.

“Both times I’ve gone online to the Amazon chatroom for ‘issues’ and within half an hour I’ve had all my details checked, a problem logged and a new Kindle dispatched – all with extreme politeness and loads of patience and help from the service agent dealing with my ‘chat’.

“Each time the new Kindle has taken an amazing three days from despatch in Louisville, Kentucky, in the US to reach little old Howick in the Midlands.”

Both damaged Kindles were collected by a courier company and returned to the US, free of charge.

“In both cases I’ve not had to pay a cent and have received a new device in less than a week. Wow!”

Wow indeed.

If only all companies made returning defective goods this pleasant and hassle-free.



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