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Last Updated: Friday, 9 May 2003, 11:04 GMT 12:04 UK
South Africa bans plastic bags
Shoppers will now have to pay for reusable, recyclable plastic bags
South Africa is making the thin and flimsy plastic bag illegal.

Known as the country's "national flower" because they litter streets - retailers handing out the bags now face a fine of 100,000 rand ($13,800) or a 10-year jail sentence.

The legislation means shoppers will either have to take bags with them when they go shopping, or buy new, thick, stronger plastic bags that are easier and more profitable to recycle.

According to the South African Government the country uses eight billion bags a year.

"Each plastic bag has a life of its own but we do not want it to end up on the street. We want everyone, from the producer to the retailer to the consumer, to start recycling," said Phindile Makwakwa, spokeswoman for the environment ministry.

You mustn't cut off the plastic. That means you are killing us. To buy food and buy plastic it's more expensive
Johannesburg shopper
"We want to get rid of plastic bag waste completely. We are hoping to walk around in our streets in a year's time and see far less waste."

The move from bags with an average of 17 microns in thickness to the new minimum of 30 microns started about two years ago.

The government wanted to ban all plastic bags thinner than 80 microns, but the proposal caused an outcry among trade unions and business.

A micron, or micrometer, is one-thousandth of a millimetre (one 25th of a thousandth of an inch). A human hair measures about 50 microns across.

The Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) said it would lead to the closure of factories and some 3,800 job losses, while plastics manufacturers said it was impossible to produce 80-micron bags with their existing equipment.

Businesses 'ready'

However, a compromise was reached: the new law would permit plastic bags with a minimum thickness of 30 microns, jobs in the plastic manufacturing and retail industries would be retained and new jobs would be created in the recycling industries.

Despite the sectors signing an agreement in September last year, newspapers reported this week that manufacturers were working around the clock, but were unlikely to meet the Friday deadline and that many shops would continue using the thinner bags.

SA uses 8bn bags annually
Law aims to reduce bag use by 50%
Bags now must be thick as a rubbish bag
"We have really given them enough time. Unfortunately change for some people is never easy and they will keep on trying to get an extension," Ms Makwakwa told AFP news agency.

"But we've had an assurance from business that they will be ready... The law is the law and we are optimistic that the people are ready."

From Friday, the cost of the thick plastic bags will be carried by the customer.

Up to now the shopping bags have been handed out free-of-charge to shoppers.


Some South Africans oppose the new law.

"You mustn't cut off the plastic. That means you are killing us. To buy food and buy plastic it's more expensive," one Johannesburg shopper told the BBC.

Poor South Africans use the bags to make hats, handbags, purses and scrubbing brushes which they then sell.

If they have to buy the bags - then the prices of their products will be forced upwards.

"I am very upset I've got four children and they need food and clothes," said one South African woman who makes handbags from bags.

But others feel the clamp down on plastic will benefit the environment.

"I grew up in the war. There was no such thing as a plastic bag. We all carried bags. It's fine as far as I'm concerned," said one shopper.

The BBC's Franz Kruger reports on Network Africa
about South African action on the bllight of plastic bag pollution

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