By YOURI KEMP
Tribune Business Reporter
The government yesterday asserted there is no turning back on the 25 cents fee for single-use plastic bags as retailers complained they are taking the brunt of consumer complaints.
Dr Rhianna Neely-Murphy, the Department of Environmental Health’s senior environmental officer, told Tribune Business it had been forced to respond to “incorrect information” about the nature of the per bag charge and the purpose of the six-month transition period afforded to businesses and consumers alike.
“The (incorrect) message was that the transition phase is there to help businesses get rid of their stock, and the second incorrect message was that the 25 cents was a tax,” she said. “The 25 cents is not a tax; the 25cents is a fee, which we hope people do not pay because they will be travelling with their reusable bags.
“The six-month period is here to help people to adjust to living life with less plastic. The ministry [of the environment and housing] is not going back on the 25 cents. The 25 cents is a fee that is associated with the purchase of a plastic bag. If you do not want to purchase a plastic bag you do not have to pay the 25 cents.
“The 25 cents is there as a deterrent. The ministry wishes people to travel with their reusable bags so that they do not have to pay the 25 cents.” The fees levied upon single-use plastic bags are retained by the retailer, and not passed to the government.
However, Bahamian merchants yesterday complained that they feel “caught in the middle” between the ban and consumer disquiet over the fee. Don Davis, general manager of Quality Home Centre, said yesterday: “The issue I have now, today, is the Government is forcing us to charge for these plastic bags and, if we don’t charge the 25 cents, they come around and charge you $2,000 in fines.
“It’s not the merchants. The merchants are put in a bind right now. We always give away the bags, but now the Government is forcing us to charge this 25 cents and the customers are upset and think it’s the merchants. We all agree that we have to get rid of the plastic bags, but to charge the consumer or fine them for using it, that’s the problem.
“I could have seen if they said that you have until June, and there is a ban on importing plastic from January, and you have up until June to get rid of the plastic. Let us give it away to the customers until then. That makes more sense than to charge the customer for the bag. I’m sure merchants would do that.”
Rupert Roberts, Super Value’s principal, previously told Tribune Business his customers are “disgruntled” over having to pay 25 cents per plastic bag for their groceries amid threats circulating on social media from upset consumers calling for retribution on the food store chain. Some went as far as calling for a boycott of stores that charge customers for plastic bags with their purchase.
The Ministry of Environment and Housing, in a statement issued yesterday, said: “The Ministry of Environment and Housing is aware that some members of the public are sharing incorrect information about the single-use plastic ban that was implemented nationwide on January 1, 2020. The purpose of this ban is to reduce plastic consumption in order to reduce plastic pollution across the country.
“By reducing the proliferation of plastic in our communities we will create a healthier environment that will serve to prevent massive landfill fires, reduce litter on our streets and beaches, and improve our general health.
“This ban is also a part of the Government’s response to climate change, a global phenomenon that is devastating our environment by shifting weather patterns and creating monster storms like Hurricane Dorian..... By acting today, we aim to reduce the potential risk, cost and devastation that we could all face tomorrow.”
The Ministry added that the ban affects single-use plastic bags; plastic utensils such as knives, forks, spoons and straws; and styrofoam containers and cups. Their importation was banned from January 1, 2020, but merchants and vendors can run down their existing supplies without charging consumers except for plastic bags.
“Businesses are permitted to charge a fee of 25 cents to $1 to consumers for plastic bags and biodegradable bags during this period January 1 to June 30, 2020,” it said. “The purchase of the bag must be reflected on the customer’s receipt as a separate line item. Value Added Tax (VAT) will be added to the sale of each bag, as per other items sold across the country by law.
“The purpose of the fee is to discourage consumers from buying plastic bags and to encourage them to bring reusable bags to shop so that they do not need to buy a plastic bag. This will reduce the number of plastic bags in circulation.”
The Ministry of the Environment and Housing continued: “Businesses can sell compostable bags, which look like plastic bags but are plant-based and therefore less harmful to the environment, from January 1, 2020, until 2022. Consumers have the option to buy plastic bags from businesses to transport their purchases or to bring their own reusable bags to shop.
“The checkout fee on plastic bags and biodegradable bags will be eliminated nationwide on July 1, 2020, as business owners will be prohibited from selling or using them as of this date. Additionally, business owners will be prohibited from selling or permitting the use of any of the ‘4Bidden Four’ items within their establishments after this date.”
“Any business owner found selling plastic bags or biodegradable bags for any amount as of July 1, 2020, will be penalised to the full extent of the law,” it added. “The checkout bag fee that consumers pay when they choose to purchase a plastic bag at local businesses is not a government tax.
“The Government of the Bahamas does not receive the funds collected as the result of the sale of a plastic bag. These funds are collected by, and retained by, the business from which the consumer purchases the bag.”