History of 'scandal bags' in Jamaica


Thursday, January 10, 2019

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As we all know by this, a ban on certain sizes of plastic bags, commonly known as scandal bags, came into effect on New Year's Day 2019. The idea behind the ban is a very good one, but the manner of implementation, whether good or bad, is debatable. However, it is true that whatever method is used it will cause dislocation for a time. This happens with every major change.

The Cabinet minister responsible for such matters, Daryl Vaz, at the press conference held at Jamaica House on New Year's Eve, said that the ban should have been done long ago but was careful to say that he was not blaming anyone. And rightly so, because I first saw the use of'scandal bags in 1986 when the Jamaica Labour Party was in power.

All of a sudden people could see one's purchased groceries through the bags used in supermarkets and shops to the concern of many who feared being scandalised by the malicious gossip of wagging tongues. The bags were yellow, red, green and blue. Eventually they were dyed black, which lessened the transparency, but the phrase scandal bag continues to this day.

When the People's National Party came to power in 1989 the scandal bag thing continued. In the 1993 election campaign the then Opposition Leader Edward Seaga exhibited a scandal bag to make a statement about scandals. If the term scandal bag had not been in vogue then, would the statement have been made in that way?

In the 1980s, believe it or not, the world was moving towards plastic containers to protect the environment. Droughts, air pollution and global warming were blamed on the cutting down of too many trees to produce paper. And those trees were destroyed to produce paper for books, newspapers, paper bags, paper drinking straws, et cetera.

So it was felt 33 years ago that by resorting to plastics it would save the trees and, to a large extent, I believe that we have saved trees and replaced many by planting trees, even if not enough has been done in this area. But with the bad habits of people, especially too many of our fellow Jamaicans, the plastic bags became litter.

And the problem is that plastics are not biodegradable, which creates a serious problem when converted into garbage and litter. The plastic litter eventually found its way into rivers, which blocked the soil and sand which processes rainwater into the aquifers that spring out as rivers and streams.

We have always had droughts in Jamaica, but the plastic bags certainly aggravated the problem. The plastics have blocked the gullies and rivers and killed millions of fish. And when the plastics made from oil are burned it aggravates the air pollution, which in turn causes illness. And all the many efforts to get people to stop littering were in vain.

I recall writing in the Jamaica Observer some years ago that cleaning the coastal areas of Kingston on World Environment Day was ineffective because people would simply continue to litter the streets and the gullies which all ends up in the harbour. At the time I pointed to the need for education about the harmful effects of plastic litter. I got an e-mail from Diana McCaulay, former head of Jamaica Environment Trust, who disagreed that it was ineffective, but I was right after all, hence the ban on plastics.

So we are returning to paper bags as in the old days, but will this lead to the same problem of the cutting down of trees for paper which in turn causes longer droughts? Not quite.

The use of computers and cellphones means that we have eliminated the need for a great amount of paper products for the previous methods of communication. So returning to paper bags will not necessarily mean the same amount of destruction of trees as before.

But we could yet have a return of the problem. What we should do, as suggested by some, is to make greater use of drinking straws made from bamboo. I recall hearing Canon Ernle Gordon, in November 1973, speaking of using banana trees to manufacture paper as done in some countries. Some Jamaicans are already making an industry out of string bags.

But while the banning of plastics is a good idea, is it being done because the Government loves us and wants the best for us, as if they are our parents and we are their children? I believe that the international lending agencies have indicated that they will refuse to grant or lend any money to import food and health care when, without pollution, our land can produce and some of the illnesses can be avoided.

I must say that while I believe there to be the reason a former PNP Government, in 1999, made the seat belt law and made restrictions on smoking cigarettes early in this century, at the same time I fully support the seat belt law and the taxing of tobacco products.

For that matter, I fully agree with the abolition of slavery, just as I imagine that most, if not all my readers do, but did the British House of Commons vote to end slavery in the former British Empire because they thought that slavery was immoral and cruel? Many historians argue that the reason was that slaveowners were convinced that it was cheaper to pay wages than to maintain slaves.

And with the change from 'pocket-boroughs', where aristocrats bought boroughs or constituencies in the British Parliament to universal adult suffrage, politicians promised an end to slavery for working-class votes.

Prime Minister Andrew Holness has been described in another context as an increasingly wily politician by a recent editorial in the Jamaica Observer. Elections are costly and political parties need to be creative in acquiring campaign funds (read Trafigura here).

Will the ban on plastic bags, ostensibly for all the right reasons, be used for certain entrepreneurs to profiteer in the manufacture of paper bags, provided that some of the profits are donated to campaign funds to meet the expenses? I wonder.

Michael Burke is a research consultant, historian and current affairs analyst. Send comments to the Observer or ekrubm765@yahoo.

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