Plastic bags: we see them lining our roadsides, floating down our water ways and drifting through the air on windy days. They are ubiquitous in life and have become our most iconic symbol of litter.
Australians use more than 10 million lightweight plastic bags every day. That’s 4 to 6 billion per year! An estimated two per cent of these are littered – 200,000 plastic bags every day! The other 98 per cent usually end up in landfill after just one or two uses.
Based on this information alone, you’d surely think bag bans are a good thing. However, according to Keep Australia Beautiful’s National Litter Index, plastic bags make up only one per cent of total litter. Unsurprisingly, it’s a statistic that detractors of the move to ban single-use plastic bags have been keen to highlight.
But, litter is only one of the detrimental impacts made by plastic bags. And only one of the reasons why we must push for an end to single-use plastic bags.
For starters, they’re made out of fossil-fuels (yes, your trusty old grocery bags start out as petroleum or natural gas liquids like ethane and propane). As such, the investment of energy and resources to extract the oil and produce these bags is then wasted while they live out their extremely long lifespans in landfill (a single-use grocery bag can take 20 to 1000 years to break down).
And while plastic bags are technically recyclable (as long as they aren’t biodegradable or compostable!), they can’t be recycled through your household kerbside recycling bin.
It’s why local councils still frequently cite these bags as one of the most problematic contaminants in kerbside bins. They’re often found loose or have been used to hold collected items within recycling bins.
To be recycled, plastic bags must be taken to special REDcycle collection points in supermarkets. REDcycle recovers more than 3 million soft plastic bags and pieces of plastic packaging every week in Australia. But, many of us do not use their service. So, reducing the number of single-use plastic bags in circulation can help. At the same time though, bag bans are not a silver bullet solution.
Plastic bags represent just one type of plastic pollution and just one of the main single-use items we rely so heavily on (think straws, coffee cups, takeaway containers, picnicware, tissues, paper towels, cotton buds, the list is seemingly endless). For plastic bag bans to really make a difference, they need to be the first step (or second for reusable coffee cup owners!) in reducing reliance on single-use and disposable goods. Kind of like a ‘training ground’ for people to think about reuse and repair, and for businesses to develop better systems and services.
Do bag bans actually work?
Plastic bag bans have been implemented in a number of states – South Australia (SA), the Northern Territory (NT) and the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) and have shown positive results.
For example, plastic bag litter fell by about 50 per cent in SA and NT after they introduced their ban. Similarly, the ACT saw a 36 per cent decrease in the number of plastic bags reaching landfill and reported improvements in kerbside contamination after their ban.
However, for bag bans to actually have an overall positive impact, they need to encourage the right sort of change in behaviour – which means switching to reusable bags, and actually reusing them! This is the critical part.
Alternatives to lightweight single-use bags include heavy plastic bags, paper bags, woven plastic bags and cotton/fabric bags. However, individually each of these alternatives actually requires greater investment of energy and resources to produce. They are only better when they are reused more than once.
Modelling suggests that heavy plastic bags must be reused four times, green woven bags around 11 times and cotton bags 131 times before they have a net positive impact! Why so many times for cotton bags? Well, cotton is very water-intensive to grow and also requires land, fertiliser and energy to transport, process and manufacture. The best bags to use are whichever ones you already own! Or the empty boxes at the store. If you do need more bags, jute or hessian are recommended by environmental groups.
The good news is research suggests reuse is actually happening. For example, in the NT, 12 months after the ban, 70 per cent of people surveyed reused their thick plastic bags at least four times, with half using them more than 10 times. In the ACT, they saw increased sales of green woven bags initially (along with plastic bin liners), but these both returned to pre-ban levels after about 12 months, suggesting that while people were not initially reusing bags often enough, the right habits soon formed.
The evidence is compelling enough that this year the Queensland, Western Australia (WA) and Victorian governments have all followed suit in implementing a ban on single-use plastic bags.
Why the fuss with the recent supermarket ban?
Much of the coverage of the new supermarket bans has focused on the challenges faced in implementing them, particularly Coles’ ‘backflip’ on charging for thicker plastic bags.
But, we shouldn’t be too hard on them. It’s important to remember that, in the vacuum of government policy, they’re balancing their legal responsibility to make profit for shareholders with their corporate environmental responsibility.
Traditionally, governments have assumed the principal responsibility for environmental protection. But, even in the states newly implementing the ban (Queensland, Victoria and WA), retailers are not required to charge for heavier plastic bags, despite this being the key to changing behaviours towards reuse.
Regardless of their motives for charging or how long it took the big supermarkets to stick with charging for heavier plastic bags, it’s good they are now both doing so. It would be better, however, if all plastic bags were eventually ruled out altogether.
To affect real change, we need to further this switch from our current linear society – where we simply extract resources to make ‘stuff’ we use once and then sooner or later throw away – to a circular model – where resource use is minimised and products are kept in use as long as possible. The circular economy (as it’s known) requires redesigning packaging and products to use recycled and recyclable materials, reusing what we already own as many times as possible, and ensuring those items end up at the appropriate recycling facility. For more durable products, reusing, repairing, reselling, and sharing are important steps to undertake before recycling to ensure maximum sustainability.
While supermarkets and (some) governments are starting to do their bit, we must all continue to push for change. (And remember to bring reusable bags when we shop!)
Visit uts.ac/wasteandrecycling to find out how UTS plays its part, and ways you can help while on campus.
Senior Research Consultant
Institute for Sustainable Futures