Salaam: Massy Stores’ plastic furore; and its relevance to the fight to save our environment

There aren’t too many red-blooded Trinis who can truthfully say they don’t like a little kangkatang or, a lil bacchanal.  Four groups know that better than most and exploit it to the hilt: the calypsonians, the comedians, the politicians and the media—and I agree with those who say that it is sometimes quite hard to tell which is which.

Photo: The logo used for promoting the new pay-for-your-plastic-bag project.

But I am truly horrified by the criticisms I have so far heard of Massy Stores’ recently announced move to start selling plastic shopping bags for 50 cents at all their outlets. Their aim, they say, is to reduce the negative environmental impact of the material by imposing a punitive price on the item and so reducing the distribution volume at all their outlets.

“Let dem haul deh ass!” one angry woman fumed to her friend. “Deh just want to make more profit buh deh eh getting one red cent from me!”

Which, for me, confirms both that the “punitive price” thinking was right on the ball and that the PR strategy was way, way off the mark. My professional training being in environmental issues, I confess that it did not initially occur to me either that people would see it merely—or at least first and foremost—as more profit maximisation rather than as a genuine attempt to support the conservation and protection of the environment.

Massy belatedly confirmed that all proceeds from the sale of the bags are to go to charity. To put it kindly, they encountered a credibility problem.

One caller to a radio talk show earlier this week pointed out that we only have Massy’s word as to how many bags are sold.

“Not to mention how nice all dem 50 cent go look on the end-ah-year books!”

Trinis! If yuh doh laugh, yuh go end up cryin.

Photo: Former minister of culture and calypso monarch Winston “Gypsy” Peters.

“Why didn’t Massy just stop providing plastic bags,” calypsonian and politician Winston “Gypsy” Peters asked on the same show, making things worse, “and replace them with the re-usable bags they are now recommending?”

To put it kindly once more, the response(s) failed to convince. But I am standing firmly behind the conglomerate, willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.

I am not, however, going to go out on a limb to defend Massy Stores by declaring that, by choosing this pathway, the organisation is affirming its core values and seeking to establish itself as a good, responsible corporate citizen. Had the company’s representatives offered a satisfactory answer to Gypsy’s question, I might have.

But as a long-standing advocate for the protection of the environment, I am prepared to support any initiative by business owners, big or small, which is likely to have a salutary effect on the environment, biotic and abiotic. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, I am going to assume that the organisation is on the right path. I really can see no reason why we should not show appreciation for any initiative which can reduce the negative environmental effects of plastic waste.

So what if Massy Stores makes a profit? I see the 50 cents charge levied on customers who do not bring their own re-usable bags as a small price to pay for the “privilege” of doing untold damage to the environment. I applaud any organisation which has the courage to attempt to dissuade and/or punish would-be polluters.

Photo: A huge island of plastic garbage continues to grow in the North Pacific.

Without indulging in any semantics about the difference between degradable and bio-degradable, we can all agree that plastics take a very long time to degrade. It follows, then, that the more plastic we produce, the bigger the problem.

It is an incontrovertible fact that plastics already constitute a vast proportion of the debris in our rivers—are we not dramatically reminded of it with every new rainy season?—and on our beaches—visit Manzanilla or Mayaro on a Monday and see the massive amounts of plastic litter freshly strewn all over by the same citizens now vociferously objecting to the Massy Stores pay-for-your-plastic-bag move.

And, of course, this ubiquitous product eventually finds itself in our oceans. Recent studies suggest that, in the North Pacific, known as the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” the debris spans an area at least three times the size of France and contains 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic, weighing 80,000 metric tons.

Additionally, environmental studies show that anthropogenic and human factors are at the root of pollution of the planet, making it a concern which has to be addressed urgently. Plastic bags are killing both marine animals and birds, putting tens of thousands at risk of injury or death from ingesting or being entangled in plastic flotsam and jetsam. Pieces of this floating mass can be mistaken for food by marine animals such as sea turtles, who consume them; the tiny pieces of indigestible plastic block the turtles’ digestive tract, often leading to death by starvation.

Surely if we have any sense of the respect due to Mother Nature, we cannot reasonably object to any initiative likely to ultimately decrease pollution of our oceans. If conglomerates like Massy Stores attempt to do their bit to change the culture of their customers and, by extension, the citizenry, that has to be seen as something positive to be welcomed rather than rejected.

Photo: The Mayaro beachfront, often littered with discarded plastic after the weekend.

My hope is that these baby steps will expand into a massive movement involving progressively increasing awareness in schools and in the workplace, which will eventually drive legislative changes.

But long before we officially outlaw the use of plastic bags altogether along with, I hope in vain. plastic drinking straws, plastic spoons, plastic forks and plastic bottles too, I am hoping that we will all come around to seeing that any initiative aimed at reducing their use is a concrete step in the right direction.

Mother Earth will not forgive us if we step back now. Her face will be wreathed in smiles if, in a year’s time, the Massy Go Green initiative has grossed, in all their 20-odd stores, not so much as 50 cents!

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  1. Good article. One cannot imagine what it takes to please shareholders and the public at the same time. It would be great to know that proceeds to charity may also end up in research and development for the environment. Results from research conducted in T&T prior to the decison may have sensitized the consumer. Whether we like it or not, Massy will be here for a long time. Without Massy, we will have a CLICO situation. Consumers weren’t bawling when higher interest rates were offered then. Now they are bawling for plastic bags and checkin the maths. Thankfully doubles are served in paper.

  2. Methods matter in an already struggling society …

  3. Great article!!

  4. The average Trini is extremely small-minded, not being able to think outside a certain cultural mindset. This is unfortunate because, in today’s world where information (reliable information, eh!) is so easily accessible, all it takes is a little effort to investigate what works and what doesn’t.

    On top of that, many more Trinis are able to travel than in the past, and many have first-hand experiences of going through similar in other places, and they obey with nary a word of protest. Think any Trini would protest if they came to England and have to pay 10 pence for a plastic bag?

    When the big four supermarkets in the UK (Asda, Sainsbury, Morrisons, and Tesco) started charging for plastic bags, the use of bags dropped by 85% [].

    That newspaper report is based upon actual Government figures found here:

    Amounts donated to good causes

    168 retailers donated the following to good causes:

    approximately £33 million went to local causes chosen by customers or staff
    approximately £20 million went to good causes relating to charity or voluntary sectors, environment and health
    approximately £13 million went to a combination of good causes (including research, education, arts, heritage and sports)

    Those who are protesting will eventually face punitive measures, because change not embraced willingly, will be forced upon you. That’s the nature of the world.

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