Selling 101 million plastic shopping bags last year made Spar Eastern Cape managing director Conrad Isaac feel like a drug dealer and spurred him on to declare war on plastic bags by selling paper bags and other reusable bags in 263 stores in the region.
Isaac said the campaign, launched last week, had received an “absolutely unbelievable” response from shoppers.
He said although the 116 Spar stores in the province were still selling plastic shopping bags in order to give consumers a choice, the intention was to phase them out completely.
“There will come a time when there will be no choice. We have definitely sold less plastic bags since offering the paper ones and there has not been one store that has not been happy about it.”
Isaac said selling so many plastic bags had weighed on his conscience.
“I can’t stand it anymore. It may not impact me but it will impact my kids and grandchildren.
“Plastic will be the end of us. It destroys the environment and in the end we’ll pollute ourselves because we will eat the fish that eat the plastic.”
He said the campaign to introduce alternative grocery bags had been a learning curve.
“The world is geared to make plastic. It is cheap and easy. But for paper we had to import the pulp from Europe. We are looking for someone local to do it and an East London company makes the paper bags.”
He said another East London company manufactures the group’s plastic bags and he hoped it would find a way to change it’s operations and manufacture recyclable bags.
Western Gruppe Trading managing director Nigel Connellan said the group, which owns 14 Spar stores in the Eastern Cape, said consumer response had been “fantastic”.
“I think people realise the plight the world is in and the response to exchanging 10 plastic bags for a paper bag last week was huge.”
He said although a small percentage of shoppers were opting to buy the R1.98 paper bags, the habit of bringing reusable bags was still not entrenched.
“The thing is we can’t carry on using plastic this way. It is a habit that cannot be broken overnight and a lot of education still needs to happen, but the idea is to eventually get rid of all plastic bags.”
Environmental campaigner Hayley McLellan, who visited the Eastern Cape with her Rethink the Plastic Shopping Bag campaign last month, said the Spar Eastern Cape’s campaign to reduce the use of plastic shopping bags was a great “step in the right direction”.
“If a paper bag and a plastic bag end up in the environment, the paper one is the lesser of the two evils and so I commend Spar Eastern Cape for that,” said McLellan, adding “I’m still very much of the opinion that it is still perpetuating a throwaway attitude because people will only use the paper bag two or three times before throwing it away, while cloth bags can last two or three years”.
McLellan, who is an environmental campaigner with Cape Town’s Two Oceans Aquarium, said producing paper bags had a higher carbon footprint than manufacturing plastic ones, but were part of a process to phase out plastic bags entirely.
“Spar Eastern Cape have led the way and I hope Spar national will also roll out a plastic shopping bag reduction campaign.
“Other retailers should also get excited and join the movement.”
East London eco activist Karen Harvey said Spar Eastern Cape’s campaign was “a fantastic first step in a long journey” of eradicating plastic shopping bags.
She said it was important that other retailers followed suit and called on supermarkets to cut out the use of polystyrene and clingwrap to wrap vegetables. —