For those of you who have had the pleasure of travelling to South East Asia – which is far more people than I anticipated before I came to university, turns out I’m not that special – you probably noticed the insane amount of plastic bags in circulation. And if you didn’t, how?? Beaches, streets, rice paddies, mountains- countless beautiful areas all littered and polluted with these handy little planet destroyers. If you bought a slice of pineapple it would be handed to you in a plastic bag wrapped in a plastic bag wrapped in a plastic bag, like a game of pass-the-parcel where the prize is the death of all sea creatures. It’s pretty damn devasting, but there’s hope yet! Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia, has announced that henceforth it will promote a plastic-free lifestyle.
Starting in July, reusable shopping bags will be legally mandatory and single-use plastics will be banned in markets. According to the World Bank, around 400,000 tonnes of plastic waste enter Indonesia’s waters every year, whilst another source, Pasar Jaya, remarked that Jakarta’s 153 traditional markets have been generating 600 tonnes of waste a day, 12% of which is plastic.
We all know about the horrors of pollution. We’ve seen the photos, we’ve watched the videos, we’ve heard the calls for action from David and Greta. It’s incredibly reassuring to see that governments are finally stepping up to the challenge, particularly in a place like Indonesia where the consequences on the seas and lands are visibly dire. I’m interested in understanding the impact of such measures and whether they go far enough in the face of a crippling climate crisis.
In October 2015, England introduced the 5p tax on polyethylene bags and within 6 months plastic bag usage dropped by a staggering 85%. An article by The Guardian revealed that the year prior to the introduction of the tax saw 7 billion plastic bags being handed out, plummeting to an astonishing 500m in just half a year. Sure, that’s still heck of a lot to end up in a landfill, but it’s far prettier than the previous figure.
It’s not just that these fiscal measures impose a financial incentive to consume less plastic, they also help kick-start a much-needed paradigm shift. We’ve started noticing those who don’t take reusable bags to the supermarket or who purchase a coffee without a reusable cup. (If you haven’t seen it, find the clip where a colleague knocks a single-use coffee cup out of Boris’ hands as he walks into a talk about climate change; it’s glorious.) I’m not one to relish in passing judgement on others, but in a situation as critical as this one, small behavioural changes like this does stimulate an important shift in values.
In an ideal world, we’d all be switching to vegan, minimal lifestyles, fuelled by sustainable power sources. As it is, little changes like what we’re seeing in Jakarta are key steps to bringing about a happier, healthier planet. I know it can be frustrating when so little action is taken by those with the power to initiate big changes, but every choice we make in our own lives does makes a difference, even in the grand scheme of things. So keep using that bag for life, keep avoiding packaged vegetables where you can, and keep putting pressure on the government to commit to these small yet vital changes that keep our beautiful planet and all its inhabitants alive.