The Fake Plastics Purge
By Professor Biman Prasad
Opinion Piece was published in the Fiji Times on Saturday 18th January, 2020.
Plastics, microns, calipers, goats, and laying blame on the farmers but not the government as being responsible for the rising cost of living…. What a chaotic and confusing start to 2020 and the beginning of a new decade!
On 1 January 2020, the Government's ban on "single use" plastics that was part of the 2019-20 Budget consequential laws came into effect. It plunged the country into mass confusion because everyone who needed to know about it -- the consumers, retailers and manufacturers -- were unsure about what it actually meant.
Social media was flooded by outrage and shock when images appeared of fresh bread purchased from the corner store was wrapped in newsprint or sitting on cardboard, and frozen meat thrown into a cardboard box with other supermarket goods. The hygienic concern to public health was forgotten for fear of steep penalties like $150,000 fine or jail for 2 years, or both, that enveloped shops.
Even Department of Environment staff were confused by the policy when on 3 January they clarified to a consultation with supermarket chains, retailers, hardware stores and other private sector members that single-use plastic bags were permitted for fresh produce, frozen mean products and baked goods.
The same day the Department had to embarrassingly contradict themselves to "re-clarify" that they made a mistake, and state that there were no exceptions to the single-use plastic ban.
It took the Minister for Environment to finally "re-re-clarify" what the ban meant as per the policy released by the Ministry of Economy.
In my response to the 2016-17 Budget, I had said:
"we need to urgently address the eyesore of plastic packaging that is choking our land and marine environment. We ask for appropriate tax measures with incentives for alternative and environmentally friendly packaging to be looked at soon. Our oceans need as much help as they can get and our tourism sector, I am sure, would only agree with us that it is good business to maintain a pristine environment."
In the April 2018 session, our former MP Hon Parmod Chand responded to the Minister for Fisheries ministerial statement condemning the then 10 cent plastic bag levy, seeking answers on whether the levy had actually helped Fiji's plastic pollution or not. If the plastic bag levy thereby gradually increased over time from 10 cents to 20 cents, and now 50 cents for thicker bags as it is written in the policy today, it is very telling.
This idea of the Government was not to rid Fiji of plastics. It was to use it as a underhanded revenue measure, and extract more money from already heavily burdened consumers, while preferential treatment is being given to some businesses.
This is confirmed when on 6th January, the official Government twitter page tweeted its joy at supermarkets who were providing thicker plastic packaging (more than 50 microns) to consumers. The tweet disappeared shortly after when many on the twitterverse questioned how thicker plastic alternatives could be good for the environment as per #PlasticFreeFiji?
Chaos and confusion
Within a few days after the ban came into effect, the Environment Minister Dr Mahendra Reddy was seen by the people of Fiji via the newspapers and television, moving around with a caliper measuring the thickness or dimensions of plastic bags.
Like many, I was bewildered by the Minister’s actions. Here was a policy maker trying to be a policy enforcer through micro-management – and using a caliper rather than a micro-meter to determine microns in a plastic bag.
It was a painful comedy. Comical because what the Minister was doing and painful because the Minister was exacerbating chaos and confusion. Seriously, this wasn’t a laughing matter.
Not for the students who at the start of the school year were struggling to keep their books dry while walking in torrential rain, hoping in vain that a nearby shop would provide them with plastic bags in which they could pack their books and then place them in their school bags.
They could not afford to pay 50 cents for a thick plastic bag (above 50 microns) or a waterproof school bag – a luxury afforded by the rich and the likes of Cabinet Ministers who collect hefty salaries as well as allowances when travelling overseas but can be deceptive when bargaining and buying goats – at least in the case of the Environment Minister!
It is painful for fresh fish vendors who are complaining of a marked drop in fish sales because of their inability to pack the fish in plastic bags or thicker ones because the Fiji First government’s laws compels them to sell it for 50 cents for revenue for the State’s coffers.
It is painful for buyers of fresh fish because taxi drivers refuse to carry them as passengers for the real danger of the whole vehicle smelling like fish from the dripping water. It is painful when fresh produce in the markets are wrapped in newspaper, undoubtedly getting the ink imprinted on the vegetables, and given to the buyers.
And the list of this ill-conceived policy causing pain goes on…
The goat roadshow
After ridding himself of the calipers faster than Fiji will ever rid itself of plastics, the Environment Minister went on a roadshow or consultation with the people, particularly the farmers.
And lo and behold it was a week of sustained and earth-shattering but painful comedy to those who care about our people’s livelihood and their dignity.
The dimensions of the calipers were discarded in favour of kilograms of goat meat, the extremely harsh penalties for using single-use plastics less than 50 microns were ditched for blaming farmers for the rising cost of living and a ridiculous attempt to explain price-fixing of goats, cabbage, prawns and crab. We were told the price of the sea and green grass did not increase so why did farmers increase price of their produce!
And of course, telling sugarcane farmers to plant rice instead of sugarcane because it was more profitable. Maybe the Minister had somehow defied Einstein in calibrating with his caliper, the income earned by planting rice over sugarcane!
But the Minister forgot that while sugar is Fiji’s largest agricultural export, rice (and dairy products) are our biggest agricultural imports.
There was little mention about plastics apart from the statement that plastics of even 50 microns or more should be banned, totally contradicting his government’s policy. The Minister is right – but what was he doing all along? What was he doing in Cabinet when the policy was crafted?
As the Minister responsible for environment, he should have impressed the Cabinet to make the right decisions – such as encouraging the set-up of factories manufacturing authentic bio-degradable bags.
When the policy of levying 10 cents for each single-use bag was introduced three years ago (obviously after Severe TC Winston) when revenue generating options were being explored, the Minister who was then in charge of Education should have educated Cabinet about the future perils of such a policy.
He should have emphasised for the need to have policies to encourage the manufacture of biodegradables, plastic re-cycling plants and buy-back plastic schemes like beer bottles (and lately PET bottles albeit on a very small scale), three years before the total ban on single-use plastics or thicker than 50 micron plastics that the Minister wants.
Or was he saying Yes Sir to everything being dished out by the two-man rule of the Prime Minister and his right-hand man the Attorney-General.
Because anyone with a modicum of intelligence would have plans and policies in place well before implementing and enforcing such a drastic policy.
It’s Government’s call
Ultimately a small nation with a rich natural biodiversity like ours needs to wean itself of ALL plastic packaging including PET bottles that some global fizzy drink manufacturers are conveniently quiet about.
The private sector must all be given equitable incentives so that alternative well researched environmentally friendly options clearly set out by the government are given the red carpet treatment at our border, while all other undesirable options are sent packing.
This treatment was reversed for some small businesses who tried to bring in very progressive environmental options, but were given the run around by the tax authority.
Protecting the environment without burdening the ordinary people of Fiji is the job of any government. But this micron - unmeasurable Fiji First Government thinks imposing a policy in a haphazard manner and burdening the people of Fiji is the way to go in protecting our environment.
What a comical yet painful reality!
The Government has failed once again but may quietly hope that over time the public will acquiesce and ultimately forget about it, and just simply cough up the money.
Only time will tell.
Professor Biman Prasad is the Leader of the National Federation Party. The views expressed here are his own and not necessarily of this newspaper.