Friday is bag day in South Africa. The country has outlawed the thin plastic grocery bags that shopkeepers used to give to their customers for free. The new rules, which came into effect Friday, are supposed to help clean up the environment and encourage recycling. But, some consumers find the new rules confusing, and object to paying for grocery bags.
In a Pick'n'Pay grocery store south of Johannesburg, Ethel Lebethe's job is not just bagging groceries anymore. She now has to explain to customers that they have to pay for their plastic grocery bags. "Sister, plastic bag? Oh, you've got your own, no problem. No problem," said one of the customers.
The new environmental law has banned the thin plastic bags that litter South Africa's landscape, especially in areas without regular garbage collection. In some places, so many bags cling to bushes and fences that people call them roadside daisies or South Africa's national flower.
Store Manager Jabu Dhlamini says the change will be good for the country. "It's good now that they've put a value to a plastic bag," he said. "The way you see them on the street, it's an eyesore. They lie all over the place. I think people don't take responsibility, making sure they don't litter."
Stores used to give customers the plastic bags for free. Now, the government says the stores must use thicker plastic bags that are easier to reuse and recycle. And the government says the customers have to pay for them.
The Gauteng provincial minister for environmental affairs, Mary Metcalfe, says she hopes people will be less inclined to toss the bags away, if they have to pay to replace them. "The most important consequence of this intervention is that, for the first time, the general public is being made aware that what they regard as rubbish has a value," he said. "And that that value, before we just discard things, we should think about whether or not they can be reused, and can they not be recycled?"
The price of the new, thicker plastic bags is relatively low, about four U.S. cents for a small bag, and six cents for a large one. But on the first day the new law took effect, even that small charge caused problems for some customers.
On his way out of the store, Themba Hlaisi is pushing a trolley with provisions for his daughter's first birthday party. Inside, he has carefully stacked a small birthday cake, a container of ice cream, some sausages and two bottles of orange soda. He has no bags, plastic or otherwise. He says he could not afford to buy them, not if he wants to pay for a taxi, so he can get back to his home in Soweto, before the ice cream melts. "I don't have that money," said Themba Hlaisi. "I've still got to catch a taxi, too! I've just got only enough money to buy these things for my daughter's birthday, so the only money I have left is for fare for a cab."
Customers do not have to buy the new plastic bags, if they do not want to. They can bring their own bags, even if they come from competing stores. Some shoppers Friday morning brought duffel bags and canvas carryalls to get their groceries home.
But that requires planning ahead. The local environment minister, Ms. Metcalfe, admits that most people were not aware that the new law was taking effect on Friday. Grocery store employees said they had to deal with a few angry people on Friday. But many customers appeared pretty good-natured and even enthusiastic about the change.
A Pick'n'Pay shopper named Rehana says she wholeheartedly supports the new bag rules, but they are going to take some getting used to. "Well, I think it's a very good idea," said Rehana. "The only thing is, I forgot mine at home today! I should leave them in the car! You're so used to just jumping in the car and going to the supermarket. "
Most supermarkets say they plan to lower the price of basic groceries, using the money they save on plastic bags. And part of the price for the new thicker bags is a tax that goes toward recycling.