The ban on disposable plastic shopping bag kicks in Dec. 30, but though Puerto Rico’s retailers have had a year to prepare, don’t expect them all to give up plastic right away.
Walmart, for one, will continue bagging purchases in plastic, phasing out disposable bags over the course of the six-month grace period during which scofflaws will get non-compliance notices, instead of fines.
“In January we will begin to inform our customers and start a gradual elimination of plastic bags, offering them the reusable cloth bags we already have and introducing other reusable polypropylene bags,” said Ivan Báez, Walmart’s corporate affairs director.
Ricky Castro, president of MIDA, the trade group for the food industry, said such a process of change will take time while consumers and companies adapt.
“Some businesses will be ready while others won’t,” he said, going on to point out that final regulations covering requirements under the law have not been approved yet.
Walmart sells its reusable bags for $1 but has yet to decide whether the polypropylene bags, made from a recyclable plastic, will be free-of-cost or whether they will be sold at a minimal price, he said.
Paper is not an option.
“Prices for paper bags have risen greatly, which is why we believe that they are not cost efficient, besides being scarce,” Báez said.
Impact yet unclear
With two months left before the ban takes effect, the impact that the radical measure will have on the retail sector, if any, is still unclear.
Retailers worry that having to pay for carrier bags will discourage consumers from buying and that the ban could disrupt food purchasing patters, hurting sales.
MIDA’s Castro said there could be an impact but “we hope it won’t happen. There is going to be a process of adjustment and we will be analyzing the consumer’s behavior very closely to take measures or make the necessary claims.”
“Consumers need to be aware that commerce will provide alternatives to facilitate purchases should they not bring their own [carrier] bags. Right now, no business has the luxury to lose a sale because they lack those alternatives,” Castro said.
House Rep. José L. Báez Rivera, who co-authored the legislation, acknowledged there could be an initial negative impact, especially for supermarkets.
Puerto Ricans, he said, typically make a few big food purchases each month supplemented by smaller purchases to refill on such common staples as water, milk, and bread.
What’s likely to happen is that consumers will revert to smaller but more frequent purchases, he said.
Arguably, this scenario could spell less sales at supermarkets, which have already seen their volume of business reduced under the island’s long-running recession.
According to a recent report, Puerto Ricans in 2015 allocated $425 to food each month. This year the amount dropped to $406, the lowest figure in the past 10 years.
As Economist Francisco Villamil put it, “If the economy were growing, there wouldn’t be any problem.”
Another concern raised by retailers is the possibility that larger companies will provide a free-of-cost shopping bag alternative to buyers, instead of charging for them as allowed under the law.
‘No clear orientation’
“If that happens, that would put smaller retailers at a clear disadvantage,” said Nelson Ramirez, who leads the 5,000-member strong United Retailers Association, known as CUD for its initials in Spanish.
He was critical of the government’s efforts to educate business about the ban.
“There has been no clear orientation,” he said.
Puerto Rico has about 45,000 small and medium-sized retail companies.
Meanwhile, the island’s packaging suppliers are turning to alternatives to make up for the loss of the disposable plastic bag market.
That’s true of Top Traders Inc., one of several companies that import these bags into Puerto Rico.
“We’re looking for suppliers that can provide bags approved for use under the law,” company spokesperson Geysa Muller told a local paper.
Marisel Rodríguez, owner of MR Packaging, expects a 30 percent drop in sales as a result of losing this market but is counting on making up the loss by selling other types of carrier bags made out of non-woven cloth, paper, and reusable plastic (such as low-density polypropylene and polyethylene).
Whatever the effect on business, it should not be immediate.
Although the ban begins Dec. 30, retailers will have another six months in which to wean consumers off plastic bags and steer them towards the other alternatives. Since the public will end up paying for these bags, low-income consumers are expected to feel the brunt of this added cost.
The extension lets retailers avoid, at least temporarily, the fines the Department of Consumer Affairs (known as DACO for its initials in Spanish), in charge of compliance, will issue to the tune of $100 for the first violation, $150 for the second and $200 for all others.
DACO: People will adjust after ‘initial shock’
DACO Secretary Nery Adames expressed confidence that people will be able to adjust after the initial shock of the new.
“The law seeks a change in culture,” he said, pointing to another major shift that occurred in 1996 when Puerto Rico’s 809 area code was replaced by 787, causing initial dismay.
“I foresee that in a year consumers will have gotten used to it and will leave behind the bad practice of using plastic bags,” Adames said.
Hopefully, so will the many different businesses that fall under the ban such as: pharmacies; farmers’ markets; gasoline stations; jewelry, department and liquor stores and more. Restaurants are exempted.
Signed in Dec. 2015, Act 247 (the Act for the Promotion of Reusable Bags and Regulation of Plastic Bags in the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico) aims to cut down on the amount of plastic ending up in Puerto Rico’s few and overburdened disposal areas.
Out of the island’s 29 remaining landfills, 12 are operating under partial or total closing orders. About 1 billion plastic bags circulate in Puerto Rico and only one percent gets recycled.
Many of these bags end up in the ocean, causing pollution and killing marine life.