By Annette Chrysostomou
This week, England, the last hold-out in the UK, introduced a 5p charge on plastic bags for shoppers, at least in big supermarkets, but while English people used only 140 bags per person last year, in Cyprus the figure is more than double that.
Debate on the issue is still at the early stages in Cyprus and use of plastic bags remains a matter of individual environmental consciousness. But the era of rampant use – 400 plastic bags per Cypriot per year – is running out, and it is just a matter of time.
As a result of decisions taken at EU level, member states will either have to impose a price on plastic bags by the end of 2018 or limit the annual consumption of plastic bags to 90 per person per year by the end of 2019, and further reduce this number to 40 by the end of 2025.
Discussions in Cyprus have been dragging on for years with different stakeholders holding diverse views on the subject.
“Supermarkets are open to discussions with the department of the environment while many already offer canvas bags,” Cyprus Supermarket Association general secretary Andreas Hadjiadamou told the Sunday Mail, adding “The customer has a choice.”
He also said that the bags were already “environmentally friendly” as they are biodegradable.
But while biodegradable seemed like a good idea at the time, experience has proven otherwise. The latest EU directive says that labelling bags as biodegradable is misleading and should be phased out by 2017 as the plastic merely fragments, leaving even smaller particles in the environment and causing increased pollution.
“Our top priority is to be customer-focused and many people want the free bags so we supply them,” Marina Constantinou from Alpha Mega supermarket said. However, to give customers a choice they will bring back the canvas bags which they have had in the past. The reason they don’t have them at the moment is a temporary problem with suppliers.
Constantinou believes a law would give people a motivation to use fewer bags just like it happened with smoking laws in restaurants. This would save supermarkets a huge amount of money, she said.
Lidl, by contrast, charges for plastic bags in Cyprus. The company argues that they are already aligned with EU directives as regards reducing the consumption of plastic carrier bags, according to which all member states should choose between the taxation, the reduction or the total prohibition of plastic carrier bags in order to protect the environment.
Eleni Savvidou, spokeswoman for Lidl, argues that this way the customer can decide and there is full transparency as there are no hidden charges. In the rest of the market, Savvidou added, the cost of the bags is passed on to the products. In their experience, Lidl’s policy has been widely accepted in Cyprus and there have rarely been complaints.
Customers also have diverse views.
Some are already motivated, such as Maria Demetriou. She takes her own bags and has done so for years. When she forgets, she makes use of the plastic bags later to collect dog poop when she walks her pets. She has noticed a slow shift in attitudes when telling supermarket staff that she doesn’t need a plastic bag and begins filling up her own reusable bags.
Now cashiers accept it, but in the past “if I was a timid person I might not have done it” because cashiers would try to resist and get upset when you were about to put things in your own bag,” she said.
Others need a bit of a push to change their habits. Several customers said that they have actually got their own shopping bags or the canvas bags you can buy in some supermarkets, but they forget them in the car or at home and end up with plastic bags.
Then there are those who say they need the plastic bags as they use them for their garbage bins. Eleni Louka is one of them. She also mentioned that she doesn’t mind Lidl charging for them either. “When I go to Lidl I take the shopping bags with me and in the other supermarkets I get the plastic bags,” she said.
Also cashiers in Cyprus who bag the items nearly always use a great many of them, grouping items into cleaning materials, frozen food and others in the belief that this is good customer service. Asking several their opinions whether they thought customers should pay for their bags, the Sunday Mail was met with blank stares and the question: Why should they do such a thing?
Former environment commissioner Charalambos Theopemptou said ecologists have repeatedly urged the government to take action but so far nothing has been done.
The Green Party has tabled a bill to limit the use of the bags as far back as 2005, and the subject was taken up again in 2013.
Theopemptou doubts that the government will do something before they are forced to by EU directives but that will still have to be fairly soon according to the deadlines set by Brussels.
Theopemptou said Cyprus plastic bag manufacturers used to be a strong lobby against the law but they are now losing business and influence because many supermarkets import the bags from China. This will make the adoption of the law easier, as it also means that it will not cost many Cypriot jobs, he added.