Opinion, by Alfonso Stefanini

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – If you thought supermarkets would be giving away schwag forever, you might be a little dazed and confused to find out that the city of São Paulo has implemented a new law that bans the free-giveaway of the traditional petroleum-based, plastic bags in its commercial establishments.

Alfonso Stefanini, environmental consultant in Rio de Janeiro.
Alfonso Stefanini, environmental consultant in Rio de Janeiro.

The new law, like a run away white trash plastic bag that once wanted to get to the other side of the city but winded up in the bottom of the local river, could soon be implemented across other major cities like Rio de Janeiro, especially if there is any money to be made off free commercial schwag.

The anachronistic colored, but heftily made green and grey satchels being distributed in the Paulista capital now justify their existence to the planet by the fact that they help hold things, like dog poop; and as far as the regulation goes, the greens will be used for discarding recyclables, while the greys will serve for throwing away any remaining household material organic residue.

The law defines for these plastics bags to be composed of at least 51 percent renewable raw material, like corn or sugarcane, the former being the dominant plant resin of choice in Brazil. And according to specialist in the field, the elephantine, super sugary grass is way kinder to the climate change cause than the corn resin cousin used by other nations whose laws require a lesser composition percentage of raw material used in the fabrications of their bags, though it is unclear if the remaining 49 percent in Brazil can be that of blood, sweat and tears.

The stingy but fair price of R$0.08 to R$0.10 for each unit of the “green polyethylene” bag now sold at the supermarkets have caused a fervor among consumers and interests groups alike, who are feeling the financial heat from the new and improved thermoplastics on the block and the sudden widespread proliferation of men purses on the streets.

Braskem, the world leading producer of biopolymers and largest thermoplastics producer in the Americas, possibly the head honcho of Copacabana beach pliable silicon buttox, highlights on its website the emission-friendly qualities of the “I’m green” polyethylene bioplastic products whose chief ingredient is dehydrated sugarcane ethanol, which shares the same innate physical qualities of its petro-polymer plastic contenders, making them recyclable in the regular municipal waste streams.

Unfortunately, like the former gloomy shadow of its predecessor, the polyethylene bioplastics are not biodegradable or compostable, throwing a curve ball to the Three Pillar Sustainability high priest acolytes.

While the carbon emission potential offset of the polyethylene bags is quite impressive compared to the other disposable, petroleum-based plastics sacs or “sacos” in Portuguese, the proper collection and disposal of material residues in Brazil is historically problematic. Although it has gotten better in the past few years since the National Solid Waste Policy came around, notwithstanding the fact that still more than half of the national trash ends up in open dumps, landscapes, aquatic systems, oceans and finally Moby Dick’s gut; and you thought Chikungunya was the next best plague to swarm the planet’s food web.

Whatever happened to the cardboard boxes given away for free by the surprisingly friendly, supermarket clerk on your eviction day? Not a bad idea considering most things sold in stores come in bulky packages, not necessarily streamlined but suitable for carrying your groceries back home along with your naughty rubbish.

And is the “paper or plastic” environmental bag paradox contemplated at the store counter no longer valid in today’s petro and bio-polymer plastic world? The good old brown paper schwag bag was certainly awesome for making papier mâché.

Have the handy wineskins and bota bags bought at your local bullfighting rink gone out of style and replaced with the potentially sketchy, “BPA-free” water bottles?

These, and other questions industry and society need to examine with urgency if we want to separate the wheat from the chaff, like maybe, water-resistant, fiber-weaved bags made from sugarcane bagasse that could prospectively be used in the disposal of organic household residues?

Plastics have important roles in our society in the use of medical equipment and other utilitarian functions, but industry needs start assuming its Extended Product Responsibilities in order help stop and capture the plastic baggage circling our Earth from people’s single-serving, wasteful consumption habits. A good refund rate for the new plastic bags is certainly a way to start.


Alfonso Stefanini has an MA in International Environmental Policy from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in California, an MBE from COPPE-UFRJ in Rio de Janeiro and a BA from Hampshire College in Massachusetts. Alfonso lives in Rio, and he can be reached at: Ecobrasilis@gmail.com.

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