“Here’s your change and receipt,” said the Woolies cashier.
I pocketed the slips of paper and stood still. She pushed the two boxes of Shapes biscuits and one packet of Freddo Frogs on the counter towards me. I waited. Where’s a plastic bag to carry my things in?
That was what happened on one of my first Melbourne shopping trips when I moved back here. After a decade living in Singapore and Malaysia, I was so used to cashiers automatically plonking my groceries in plastic bags without me asking – I thought the same applied Down Under.
An estimated 3 billion plastic bags are used each day by China’s 1.3 billion people. Singapore’s 5 million population uses roughly the same amount annually. Australia’s 22.6 million people use an approximate 3.9 billion such bags in one year.
Just why do Asians use so many plastic bags?
The plastic tartan plaid bag or the “Chinese laundry bag” has been used widely in China for centuries. Made out of strong woven plastic material, these bags were, and up until today, used to lug around pretty much anything and everything. Chinese travelers use these checkered bags to carry luggage. Chinese moms use it to carry vegetables. Chinese families use it to stow away stuff at home. Arguably, many Asians are accustomed to using plastic bags and when you’re used to doing something a certain way, it’s hard to break the habit.
Maybe it’s because Asians feel the need to use many plastic bags. Countless of times while lining up to pay for my groceries in Singapore and Malaysia, I’ve heard Asian customers in front of me request extra plastic bags from the cashiers, fearing that if the bag holding their groceries embarrassingly breaks, they have back-up bags. Perhaps Asians collect plastic bags for spares around the house. My mum does this. As an anal Asian parent she loves helping herself to plastic bags at self-checkout counters and brings them home for the sole purpose of wrapping shoes and toys to keep them clean.
Then there’s also the fact that many shops in Asia tend to willingly give away plastic bags for free. Many Asians love to save and go absolutely ga-ga over freebies. Why pay for a reusable bag when a free plastic one functions just the same?
Using plastic bags while shopping in wet markets in Asia is in a sense more hygienic than using reusable cloth bags. Wet market floors are usually very wet with stinky water leaking from buckets of water rinsing poultry and plates from adjacent coffee shops. Accidentally brush a reusable green bag on the slippery floor and it’ll become damp and stained, teeming with bacteria and this may go unnoticed until we wash it.
Paper bag use has been catching on in Asia’s fast-food industry of late. I’ve noticed Mcdonalds staff in Singapore are fond of putting takeaway burger and fries into a paper bag….and then put this bag inside a plastic bag with handles. A bag within a bag. This seems very silly to me, a waste of resources. Maybe some of us find carryall bags more convenient to lug around.
It is worth noting that various parts of Asia (e.g. Malaysia kampungs) are still developing regions – there is scant education about recycling here as people here put making a bare living first. Unlike in Australia, there aren’t that many vocal “save the environment” groups campaigning for lesser plastic bag use and a sustainable society.
But in encouraging signs, the reducing plastic bag usage phenomenon is catching on in Asia. Hong Kong has introduced regulations banning retailers from giving out plastic bags for free. Malaysia’s popular departmental store Jaya Jusco has a “bring your own bag Saturday”, to which my mum grumbles about. I do too when after buying a pile of colourful clothes here on a Saturday, I realise I don’t have a bag with me to carry them home.
Maybe it’s the Asian in me, but I think there’ll always be a soft spot for plastic bags in my heart.
Do you use plastic bags or green recyclable/biodegradable bags?