A regular Source column, Undercurrents explores issues, ideas and events developing beneath the surface in the Virgin Islands community.
Life in the Virgin Islands is about to change drastically – perhaps not profoundly, but certainly fundamentally.
Thanks to legislation proposed by Gov. Kenneth Mapp and passed last week by the Legislature, the feather-light, easily-airborne, ever-lasting, ubiquitous thin plastic check-out bag will soon begin to fade into the past.
Come January, supermarkets and other major retailers will have to stop providing the bags to customers, and consumers will either have to use paper bags from the store or bring their own reusable bags made of cloth, net or other natural material.
All this assumes the governor will sign the bill into law, as expected, since it was modified very little from his proposal. The concept has been debated for years. The current legislation was similar to a bill sponsored by then-Sen. Shawn Michael Malone and co-sponsored by Sen. Nellie Rivera O’Reilly in 2009 and then re-introduced by O’Reilly in subsequent legislatures.
O’Reilly said Monday that she supported the administration proposal because it was “more simplified” than hers and “more palatable” because the ban is limited to large retailers and will not affect small businesses.
In hearings in June, Marty Goldberg, owner of the Fruit Bowl on St. Thomas, testified in favor of the legislation as a move toward protecting the environment, although he said it will increase his costs if he has to replace plastic bags with paper ones. He reiterated that stand after the bill was passed.
Karim Boucenna, store manager for Plaza Extra’s St. Croix store at United Shopping Plaza, concurred.
“If you look at the bigger picture, of course it’s a good thing,” Boucenna said Monday. But paper bags are “very expensive … Of course, it’s going to cost us money (to switch from plastic to paper.)”
Goldberg said a paper bag costs eight times what the plastic one does. Since it’s heavier, it also costs more to ship into the island and to handle once it’s here. Since excise tax is determined by volume, it will also mean slightly higher excise taxes.
Besides, he said, while the paper bag is far more ecologically friendly than plastic, it’s still going to crowd the landfill. He’d like to see people switch to reusable cloth bags.
“Just to replace plastic with paper, it’s a good move,” he said. “But it’s not the best move.”
Attempts to get a government estimate of the amount of plastic bags that are disposed of on a regular basis were not successful. Jamal Nielsen, public information officer for the Department of Planning and Natural Resources, said that department doesn’t keep such statistics, and Kysha Wallace, public information officer for the Waste Management Authority, was unable to supply any information.
However, the number is clearly well into the millions annually. Goldberg said he brings in 800,000 of them just for his relatively small store. It takes up about a third of a trailer. And Boucenna said “I order a whole trailer twice a year” for just one outlet.
O’Reilly said the implementation of the law was delayed until January 2017 to give store owners time to deplete their inventory of bags, as well as for the public to become accustomed to the new concept.
“Change is tough, but change is sometimes necessary,” she said.
She acknowledged that the switch will cost something and that ultimately the cost may be passed on to the consumer.
“Well, there is a cost to everything,” she noted. “There’s a more impactful cost to our environment” if we keep plowing plastic into it.
The legislation calls for the WMA to conduct a public awareness campaign emphasizing the importance of the ban.
It also provides for penalties for stores that ignore the ban: a civil fine of between $500 and $1,000 for each day of a violation.
The bill is not a total ban on plastic. It does not outlaw the small bags routinely provided in produce sections of a grocery, for instance. What it does ban are plastic check-out bags.