Tunisia bans plastic bags in supermarkets

Sunday 19/03/2017
Plastic bags are seen in a field near buildings in Tunis. (AFP)

Tunis - A ban on plastic bags took effect in Tunisia’s large supermarket chains in March, part of the gov­ernment’s efforts to cut down on waste and pollution.
The regulation prohibits major supermarket chains, such as Car­refour and Monoprix, distributing non-biodegradable plastic bags. The action does not affect smaller shops and street food markets or the fruit and vegetable sections of retail stores.
Waste management is a major problem in Tunisia, where much of the country’s refuse, especially in rural areas, ends up littering fields or streets or is burned on the out­skirts of towns.
Plastic bags, more than 30% of which are distributed at supermar­kets, are estimated to account for 10,000 tonnes of waste in Tunisia each year.
“It is no longer acceptable to see 50-micron plastic bags thrown into the environment,” Tunisian Environmental Minister Riadh Mouakher said last October.
“Citizens will have to change their habits and become aware of the importance of preserving the environment.”
The ban was implemented after the Ministry of the Environment and Local Affairs reached an agree­ment with Tunisia’s major shop­ping centres. Mouakher thanked stores for being cooperative.
“Our negotiations with super­market managers did not take much time. In fact, they said yes to our proposal in record time,” Mouakher said.
For environmental activists in Tunisia, who have long been push­ing for more eco-friendly policies, the action is a positive step.
“My organisation and I fully sup­port the ban,” said Adnen Ben Haj, president and founder of Associa­tion Tunisienne pour la Nature et le Développement Durable (ANDD), an environmental advocacy or­ganisation. “But for now, it applies only to supermarkets, not the small corner shops and grocery stores.”
Ben Haj, who said the move will have an effect if plastic bags are prohibited altogether, said it was difficult for consumers to cope with the new measure.
“It is quite a challenge as we, the consumers, operate in a disposable economy,” he said. “Our mindset is that using plastic bags is cheaper and less burdensome but we don’t see the mid-term and long-term damages they cause from blocked sewers, to harming bird species.”
Abdelhamid Jemii, a Tunisian who specialises in climate change and biodiversity, said limits to plas­tic bag use marked “an important and extraordinary step” but was not implemented perfectly and could cause problems for bag man­ufacturers.
Jemii said the next environmen­tal issue the government should take on is recycling.
“Providing assorted waste bins would allow people to sort their garbage and learn how to recycle,” Jemii said. “This may take years but it will eventually be successful if it’s accompanied by campaigns to raise public awareness.”
Ben Haj added: “Compared to other countries, I think the waste management situation in Tunisia lacks efficient management. Some of the biggest problems are the misplacement of trash cans and in­effective sorting on all levels.
“That being said, there are areas where everything runs smoothly, such as Sidi Bou Said and Les Berg­es du Lac. There waste is properly managed with sealed trash cans in front of buildings and scheduled trash pick-up times. In rural set­tings, the problem is of a different dimension, since trash cans are sometimes very far from houses.”
In southern Tunisia, where pick-up times are infrequent and stray animals pry into rubbish bins, peo­ple often burn their garbage, Ben Haj said.
He also pointed out that people who collect plastic to sell to recy­cling plants could be part of the so­lution if managed properly.
“I think most people are aware of the need to sort trash but they don’t have an alternative to do it properly,” he said. “Even when people sort their own waste (put­ting plastic, food waste and metal into different bags), the trash col­lecting truck just mixes and press­es everything together, rendering everything a waste of time and ef­fort.”
Regarding the plastic bag regula­tions, Ben Haj said: “We know peo­ple are always resistant to change. That is why we recommend a step-by-step approach with encourage­ment, putting the policies into ef­fect, and respecting them.”
While the move received a posi­tive response from many environ­mentalists, consumer reaction was mixed.
“Many people are not happy about it,” said a grocery worker in Tunis. “They assume supermar­kets are doing this to get more profit.”
In many supermarkets in Tuni­sia, large, reusable cloth bags or higher-micron plastic bags are sold at the checkout lines.
Others have pushed for the re­introduction of the koffa, a tradi­tional woven basket once common in Tunisia.
“Working towards effective en­vironmental sustainability is a real challenge, not only in Tunisia, but globally,” Ben Haj said. “The gov­ernment is not able to do every­thing on its own, which is why we, as environmental organisations, are here fulfilling our joint mission for the environment.”