Remember Transkei daisies? They adorned the countryside way back when most carrier bags were yellow, in the days before the shopping police decreed that we should pay for plastic bags in shops. Five years ago, millions of decorative “daisies” were replaced by millions of rands, which have made their way … nowhere. All of that irritation and frustration at thousands of till points, for nothing.

It’s more than five years since the government green-lighted the setting up of a not-for-profit company to manage the recycling of plastic bags while supposedly creating jobs to offset the expected job losses in the plastics industry. It is reported in the press this week that not one cent of the money collected during the past five years has been spent on the promised recycling. Read: every cent you and I have spent on plastic bags in the past half-decade.

This breaks my heart and I shall have to seek solace at the next meeting of Shopaholics Anon. Yes, my name is Tony and I am a shopaholic.

Being one who shops for fun while others go to movies or the beach, I have thoughts on this matter. Perhaps unreasonably, I resent having to pay for a plastic bag, even though I can see the commonsense behind the scheme (had it been managed efficiently). But doubly irritating is the sullen question: “You wanna bag?”

My face must be a picture when asked this question. I should at this point own up to being the Shopper from Hell. I may have been born to shop, as my daughter is always reminding me (she keeps promising me the T-shirt), but I can be a nightmare to shop with, as my wife will concur. Mind you, she is a hopeless shopper, rushing through the aisles without a glance at any of the interesting stuff that we might need urgently.

Then there is the matter of the plastic bags, which we usually leave in a big bag in the car boot or in the kitchen at home. Given that home is 300km away from the nearest decent shop, this can be somewhat annoying if you only realise when you get to the till that you’ve left the bags not in the car, but at home.

As a consequence of our remarkable facility for forgetting to take the bloody things with us, we are forever having to fork out for yet more plastic bags to add to the collection in the kitchen, which now resembles a plastic-bag recycling plant. We should sell it to the government for R1,5-million as a processing point for all the recycling that isn’t happening.

Supermarket till points are harrowing things at the best of times. There are just so many things capable of making you want to tear your hair out. Or the cashier’s. Like the packer jabbering away to the cashier, who for five minutes is swiping barcodes while her eyes and mind are focused on what her colleague is telling her about her kid’s progress at school, and I’m going to have to pay for everything that’s being swiped.

Like all clichés, the phrase “human error” exists for a reason, doesn’t it? So, logically, at any one time, somebody in one of those queues at one of those tills at your local Pick n Pay is swiping something twice, in genuine human error. It stands to reason. Yet almost anything you say to a cashier during this process is oddly unheard. I always try a cheery “hello” when I first get to the till, knowing full well that my greeting will be ignored.

Then, when it’s time to hand over the dosh, I hand her my debit card and say “cheque”, cleverly anticipating her question.

To no avail. “Cheque or savings?” comes the reply from the lips of any cashier in any shop the length and breadth of the land.

And finally, the dreaded question as I stand before her, clearly not carrying anything except a wallet and my glasses. “You wanna bag?”

“Well, think about it,” I want to say. “I have placed on your till counter two bottles of sauvignon blanc, a litre of fruit juice, a carton of milk, a loaf of bread, a punnet of mushrooms, two watermelons and a cucumber. How the hell am I going to get them out of the shop without a bag? Shall I eat the bread, drink the wine, balance the watermelons on my head, stuff the mushrooms into my shoes and the cucumber down my jeans, and somehow get the rest into my pockets? Of course I want a bloody bag — in fact, three — and yes, I do resent having to pay for them.”

Now we hear that after five years, not a cent of the money collected during this plastic tyranny has made its way into the recycling projects that were to be the promised result of all this enforced charity. Half a decade of fleecing the entire nation of many millions of their hard-earned shekels and at least you’d expect that some good use had been made of the spoils.

But no, it’s all imminent, they say, and any day now, blah blah blah. Funny how, after years of zilch happening, just at the point when newspapers start asking questions, it’s all suddenly “imminent”. It’s all about to roll out. Riiiiight.

How much waste is this if calculated down to an individual’s purchases? Many of us buy at least a handful of things every day. Often one will visit two or more shops during the course of a single day — some toiletries at Clicks, a nip into Woolies on the way home. Now and then there’ll be a big shop at a supermarket, where one can easily rack up 10 or more bags’ worth of purchases.

You could easily use 40 plastic bags a week. If you’re paying, say, an average of 35 cents a bag (I’ve been charged almost twice that at some shops), that’s R14 a week, or roughly R60 a month. Now that’s not going to make anyone rich, but if everybody who uses plastic bags were to donate that amount to a charity of their choice every month, the country’s charity coffers would be overflowing.

Instead, the creaky machinery of bureaucracy has got in the way and turned what seemed like a bright idea into an embarrassment. At least, you’d like to think that those assigned the task of looking after and disbursing this money would be embarrassed at having done absolutely nothing with all these millions in all of that time.

Here’s a thought perhaps worth considering as an alternative to the present fiasco.

Charities have collection boxes. Hypothetically, retail outlets could place a choice of four or five of these at every till point, and thereby donate the price of a customer’s plastic bags to the customer’s choice of charity. To make this practicable, it could of course be assigned electronically, rather than placing actual coins into actual boxes.

Till slips could state how much money is to be assigned to which charity, which presumably could easily be programmed into a cash register’s system, or in the way that a tip is indicated on a restaurant bill.

I’d personally rather have a little say in where the money is going than find out after five years that it hasn’t been going anywhere at all. Or has it?

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Tony Jackman

Tony Jackman

Tony Jackman is a journalist, budding playwright and sometime chef. He's written two plays, An Influence of Ghosts and Blue Train Coming, and back in the day wrote loads of songs. He paints a bit in watercolours...

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