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Plastics ban: When one door is closed, another will open

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

We note a news report that the Government is close to launching a public education campaign focused on the impending ban on importing, manufacturing, distributing for use of specific categories of environmentally unfriendly plastic packaging.

Government Senator Matthew Samuda is reported as saying that the educational campaign will focus not just on the ban, but also highlight alternative packaging materials.

As readers should be aware, the plastics ban, set to start on January 1 next year, relates to single-use plastic carrier/shopping bags; expanded polystyrene foam, commonly referred to as styrofoam; and plastic drinking straws.

Concerns have been expressed about the perceived difficulties and cost of replacing cheap plastic packaging.

We note Senator Samuda's assurance that, “There is nothing that the Government has banned that does not already have existing alternatives in the marketplace. It would be improper of the Government to push one alternative versus another. I think, through the public education campaign, it will come out as to the varying alternatives that are there.”

No matter the alternatives, we believe we can be fairly certain that the transition from plastic products to which Jamaicans have been accustomed since the 1960s, won't be smooth sailing. Indeed, such transitions are inherently difficult and inconvenient.

Yet, quite apart from the obvious benefits of protecting the environment, there is much to be said for the economic spin-offs that can come from replacing plastic.

Older Jamaicans remember a time when plastic packaging was virtually unheard of; a time when woven wicker bags and baskets made from such organic material as thatch palm and bamboo were used to carry purchases from the corner shop and to and from the market.

Back in those days, there were skilled weavers of wicker items in every community. They made a living from providing their neighbours with carrying and storage containers, such as bags and baskets of all sizes and shapes.

In deep-rural Jamaica, such weavers made the bags in which cassava was pressed as a vital part of the bammy-making process and the aptly named 'heng pon me', which was a large bag usually made of thatch palm strips. The 'heng pon me', which settled easily over the shoulders, was used by farmers to take home produce from their fields — not enough for commercial purposes, but more than enough for the family pot.

With the coming of plastic bags and the like, many weavers dropped out of business. Some simply focused on the tourism sector. Sadly, in most rural communities the art of weaving has died.

We are aware that entrepreneurs, large and small, will be eyeing opportunities to replace plastic packaging. Only recently, in this space, we pointed to initiatives to utilise bamboo in a range of products, including drinking straws.

Given its potential for wicker-style craft, could the thatch palm which went out of fashion early in the last century, following the arrival of corrugated metal roofing, make a strong comeback?

Could there be a significant place once again for skilled weavers operating cottage industries not just for tourism but much, much more?

What we know for sure is that when one door is closed, another will open.