Sunday, November 20, 2011

Buy it, bag it, use it, trash it

Most places in India now have an outright ban on very thin plastic bags and require stores to charge for any plastic carry bags they hand out to customers. I think this is a good move for the environment in general, and most definitely a fine way to promote reuse.

Economics indicate that explicitly charging customers, even a small amount (like Re.1 to Rs. 3 per bag based on size, which seems to be the common going rate) makes customers that much more conscious, making them refuse bags for small purchases, bring their own bags and be more amenable to stuffing more items in a lesser number of bags.

This bag charge is manna for retailers – it allows them to charge for what was previously an overhead, and if customers bring their own bags, even better: no expense at all. But I haven’t observed any of the big grocery retailers change their policies or processes to *reduce* usage of plastic in any visible way. After all, the bags we carry out the groceries in aren’t the only plastic bags we carry. Most produce is carried out by people in (smaller, transparent) plastic bags too.

But the fact is, it isn’t strictly necessary for dry produce (potatoes, onions, most fruits) to be bought this way. All of it can go into one big cloth bag and taken home. That’s what we did at the subzi mandi before all this fancy corporate retail boom anyway.

However, you can’t just throw a few bananas and a couple of apples into your shopping cart and waltz over to the express checkout. No siree, not in India. Instead of consolidating the weighing and scanning at one place at checkout, you have to do this odd double dance: you put all your produce items in transparent plastic bags and take them to a weighing station, where an attendant weighs each item and seals the bag with a bar code sticker. Then the check-out cashier scans these barcodes and rings you up.

I’m still confused. Does this comply with the law or not? I think it does, in the letter of the law. However, in spirit, it most definitely doesn’t. I, like many other people, do not want to carry fruits like bananas or apples or a few potatoes in a separate sealed plastic bag only to go home, open the bag and store them in a fruit bowl or a pantry shelf. The bags are effectively useless for me, and the only reason I’m forced to use them is the process some of these stores have imposed. The effective usefulness of the bag is 10 minutes: from weighing station to checkout counter.

At first, I thought it may be a cost concern, that maybe the weighing system is more expensive, or maybe weighing + scanning takes longer, causing line backups. But I find that hard to believe, since there are other stores where weighing at checkout time seems to work fine. Line backups are mostly due to inefficient systems and unskilled cashiers anyway.

I like to give these system designers the benefit of the doubt, but sometimes only the Obelix response seems to make sense. These Romans are crazy!

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