By Puspita Insan Kamil
Changing the mindset around single-use plastic in one of the most forgotten places
In Asian countries most households continue to use traditional retailer for fruits and vegetables even though they may use supermarkets for other products. There remains the perception, and possibly the reality, that wet market supplies are fresher and often cheaper.
As efforts to weed out single-use plastics take root across the world, relatively less attention has been paid to the role of traditional markets in contributing to the problem. In Indonesia, traditional markets have held a major role since before 1600, according to sociologist W.F. Wertheim. They are typically located around the city centre (alun-alun), reflecting their significance to daily life and economics.
The flipside of the positive role of these marks for local livelihoods and businesses is the persistent heavy use of plastics for packaging.
Single-use plastic (SUP) has topped many organisations’ and governments’ agenda in recent years. 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic debris are estimated to be floating in the ocean and their impact is varied, from changing the oceanic system to killing wildlife. To limit the production, usage, and inevitable disposal of SUP in the natural environment, public pressure has driven policy and creative programmes across the world.
In Bali, the “island of the Gods” that Catalyze is lucky to call home, in 2018 the provincial and city government passed bold regulations to ban SUP for everyone who is involved in trading activities. However, the law targets more on the modern stores and retailers as priority, and put traditional markets at low priority.
And yet, this is where large amounts of SUP are used. Despite the lack of data on SUP use in traditional markets, research shows that the rivers with the highest levels of SUP pollution in Asia are the ones that flow through highly populated areas.
If you’re not familiar with Indonesian traditional markets (or pasar), do not imagine a self-service place where customers shop around independently and pay the cashier when they’re done, as in modern supermarkets. Here, shoppers discuss with sellers before they buy, and sellers handle the picking, wrapping, and price-setting of groceries. In this context, we were eager to explore the design of a system to reduce SUP in these overlooked commercial hubs.
Initially, we spent a week observing what’s really going on in several of Bali’s traditional markets, resulting in thousands of data points. Our observations revealed that sellers have developed the habit of packing their produce in SUP automatically before calculating the price. When a buyer wants to use their own reusable bag, they must request that the seller not bag their goods in plastic from the beginning of the transaction.
It’s another addiction problem
SUP has become the new addiction everywhere, including in pasar. From a psychological perspective, we know that habits or repeated behaviours are the result of a complex process resulting from conditioning, procedural memory (and other types of memory), simplified decision-making, attitudes, and learning. According to experts, to replace an unwanted habit we need to impede it and promote the formation of an alternative one (Gregory & Leo, 2006).
Here in Bali, though SUP laws don’t focus on traditional markets, the local government has promoted the reduction of SUP in pasar since 2016 through other means. Their approach has centred on appeals to comply with the law, for example through large banners encouraging shoppers to stop using SUP, and smaller posters with the city mayor’s photo, reminding shoppers to bring their own reusable bags.
Going beyond communications
However, substituting habits is not as simple as hanging a poster and hoping that consumer behaviour will change. From our perspective, what needs to be designed is a system that can be operationalized in the context of local traditional markets to break the cognitive process behind the SUP habit.
As we had no ready-made “formula” to tackle this problem, we started off with a blank slate – we just did not know enough how and why people use SUP in pasar. Our initial observations and subsequent data analysis confirmed the significant amount of daily SUP consumption in these places.
We then reached out to the management of our local market to introduce our approach to develop a blueprint for SUP reduction. Sellers, the key users in this problem, were involved in those early conversations. Based on their feedback, we defined an approach to explore possible solutions to reduce SUP, before testing them out in the market. This is a science-based approach, utilizing the results of meticulous observations and turning them into a system.
Breaking the habit
To date, we have made ideations based on the research’s result, and completed rapid prototypes of two potential approaches: replacing SUP with newspaper bags and raising awareness with a poster that people would be able to relate to. Stay tuned for an upcoming pilot project where we’ll see the implications of these potential solutions.
We want to see the system we are creating become desirable and acceptable for pasar managers to apply – practically and socially. Over time, we aspire that our science-based model can grow roots and be replicated across Indonesia at the grassroots level.