Plastic bags are a symbol of our time: they are everywhere, making it easy to package, transport, contain and dispose of any kind of product. They also threaten our planet, polluting sky, land and sea, and all living organisms. And wherever there is waste and pollution, we Greeks are among the champions.
Each Greek uses an average of 363 plastic bags a year, according to a 2016 report by the Research Institute for Retail Consumer Goods (IELKA). This puts us in first place in Europe, where the per capita average is 175 bags per year, and far from the European Commission target of 90 plastic bags per person by the end of 2019. The charge placed on bags at the beginning of this year is aimed at bringing Greece in line with its European partners and the EU target. The premise is that if plastic bags are seen as objects of some value we will try to use fewer of them and also use them more than once, thus reducing the need for more of them to be produced. Our seas, mountainsides, fields and roads are sad proof of the need to reduce consumption and the pollution that goes with it.
The effort to imbue humble bags with some value, however, does not solve the problems of waste and pollution. The 4-cent charge means that we can purchase 25 bags for a euro – and if we consider the cost of goods that will be carried in so many bags, the charge is ludicrously low. The basic issue is that the bags – no matter what they cost – should not be discarded of in a way that pollutes. And this, like so many of our plagues, is a matter of education and culture. In Greece we can still find very expensive objects (such as professional refrigerators) in ravines and roadsides, in an extreme display of irresponsibility and disregard for laws and society.
Perhaps the relationship between Greeks and their cigarettes provides the clearest indication of the problem’s magnitude. Even as the price has shot up (due mainly to taxes) and after a law was passed banning smoking in closed public spaces, we all know the result: the Greeks remain Europe’s champions, with 37 percent saying that they smoke, according to a Eurobarometer study last year. The EU average is 26 percent. And whereas 9 percent of EU residents say that they saw people smoking in a restaurant in the previous six months, in our country the figure was 78 percent.
The small charge on plastic bags is not in itself a solution to a chronic problem but presents an opportunity for a discussion on the issue of waste management.