How much is too much to pay for plastic bags?

A heap of plastic waste at the side of a road in IndonesiaA heap of plastic waste at the side of a road in Indonesia. Photo courtesy DAJF

By: Ardi Wirdana

“Plastic Diet”, a small sign next to a minimarket cashier reads. The words, printed in block capitals, were meant to be a reminder to consumers about a new policy that charges customers for the plastic shopping bags they used to always get for free. It is hoped that this will discourage people from using plastic bags.

But after almost a week of implementation, the policy does not seem to have the desired impact on customer behaviour.

“It doesn’t matter. They’re only Rp 200,” Mutma Simabur, said after walking out of a modern retail outlet in Jakarta. Mutma was referring to the price of the bags charged by the store.

Nina, a mother of four from Tangerang, Greater Jakarta, said she had absolutely no problem with the policy, as it was good that the government was making efforts to save the environment. However, she said that she personally would not be refusing plastic bags at cashiers for reasons of “convenience”.

The regulation of restricting plastic bags, which is currently at the start of its six months trial period, has been issued by the Environment and Forestry Ministry following tireless calls by environmental activists for Indonesia to cut down its plastic usage given the country’s worrying figures related to plastic waste.

According to environment NGO Greeneration Indonesia, every person in Indonesia uses 700 plastic bags a year on average, resulting in over 100 million tons a year. In fact, Indonesia is the world’s second largest plastic waste producers, behind only China, according to a study published last year in the journal Science.

The policy is one that in essence is supported by all of the main parties involved, namely the local authorities, retailers and consumers given its noble objectives. The disagreements however, lies in the details and technicalities.

The Plastic Bag Pricing Problem

The first and most notable debate is that regarding the price.

The price of Rp 200 (1.5 US cents) for a plastic bag is the minimum and recommended figure by the Environment and Forestry Ministry, which came after discussions with the Indonesian Retailers Association (Aprindo) and the Indonesian Consumers Foundation (YLKI). However, the final decision on plastic bag prices are ultimately left for local administrations to decide.

Aprindo, which first proposed the price, said that the idea to charge customers Rp 200 per plastic bag was based on the average production cost of the product.

The recommended price however, has been challenged by a few local authorities who feel that the next to nothing price recommended by the government would do nothing to discourage customers from using plastic bags.

While most of the 22 cities implementing the programme have used the recommended minimum price, Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar said that a few cities have decided to set a higher price for plastic bags.

The city of Balikpapan, for example, charges Rp 1,500 for a plastic bag, while Makassar charges three times as much at Rp 4,500 per plastic bag. The highest price has been set by Jakarta, whose governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, more popularly known as Ahok, has been vocal about the need to set a higher price for plastic bags than the minimum price set by the government.

The Jakarta administration charges Rp 5,000 for a plastic bag and is determined to turn the trial policy into a gubernatorial regulation (pergub).

This idea, however, has been criticised by the YLKI, who described the price of Rp 5,000 as unreasonable. The consumer’s foundation suggested that the Jakarta administration stick with the government’s recommendation of starting off with a low price and evaluating it every three months.

Where Does the Money Go? And Who Decides?

The YLKI also urged the authorities and retail companies to clearly specify where the consumers’ money spent on plastic bags will go. It stressed that the money from the paid plastic bags must not go into the pockets of retailers, as it would only turn plastic bags into a marketed product, which would defeat the object of the policy.

The lack of detailed guidelines on the policy has caused a fair amount of confusion over the issue of what to do with the money gained from plastic bag sales.

The newspaper Kompas reported that the Environment and Forestry Ministry had initially proposed the price of plastic bags to be Rp 500. Of that amount, Rp 200 would be given to customers that return their plastic bags to the retailer, while the remaining Rp 300 would be used by retailers to fund environmental activities with the government or managed by the Indonesia Plastic Bag Diet Movement, which for 10 years has advocated on the issue of waste.

This spirit of giving back to the public and environment was taken on board by The Indonesian Food and Beverage Association (Gapmmi) which said that the money from plastic bag sales will be allocated for CSR programs such as educating consumers about the dangers of plastic waste.

However, Aprindo deputy chairman Tutum Rahanta told ASEAN Today that a totally different view on the matter.

Though he assured that Aprindo members have agreed not to seek profit from sales of the ordinary simple plastic bags, he argued that other types of plastic bags or other containers should be treated as just another sales product.

“If the plastic is bigger or has good designs, then customers would have to pay more. Other plastic bags will be categorised as any other sale. They will be considered as any other sales product,” he said.

He urged the local authorities and other parties involved to stick to the initial ministerial order regarding the plastic bag restriction policy which was merely to stop giving free plastic bags to customers.

“The aim of this is to reduce the use of plastic bags. The government order was for all retailers to not give out free plastic bags. That’s it. Let’s leave it at that. Let the companies decide how to go about it,” he said.

He argued technical details like setting the price for plastic bags should be left to individual companies as they know best what the right price is for customers.

“The government should not get into technicalities. If they do, it will be very complicated and turn into a mess. Trust me,” Tutum said.