The great plastic bag debate

In June 2018, Coles and Woolworths announced they would be implementing a ‘ban’ on single-use plastic bags. This caused a rapid response from state governments across the country who supported the move, and many legislated a ban on all single-use plastic bags. However, the decision has been marred by consumer backlash stating the ban is purely a profit driving exercise from the supermarkets and they feel it is a “rort.”[1]

Plastic bag ban in Australia: a short history

The plastic bag ban debate has existed since 2009 when South Australia was the first state to ban plastic bags from supermarkets. The ACT followed the move in 2010, Northern Territory in 2011 and Tasmania in 2012.[2] In reaction to the Woolworths and Coles plastic bag ban, all remaining states, except NSW, implemented legislation to ban plastic bags at supermarkets.[3]

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian responded to the plastic bag ban issues stating that legislative intervention wasn't needed because supermarkets were managing the matter themselves.[4]

The disparity in the legislation of the state governments reflects other recycling laws, such as container deposit schemes and waste management policies. Whilst it makes operational (practical) sense to have recycling and waste issues managed at a local government level, the lack of national collaboration reduces Australia’s ability to ignite a national recycling agenda and circular recycling economy

Australians use around 4 billion plastic bags every year - that’s 10 million or so each day. An estimated 50 million of these end up in our waterways and ocean.[5] If each Australian family used one less plastic shopping bag each week, Australians would save 253 million plastic bags a year.[6]

However, how much does this affect the greater recycling agenda?

The plastic bag 1%

Overall, cigarette, beverage containers and takeaway food packaging represent two‐thirds (67%) of all the litter counted across Australia. Plastic bags only represent 1% with the remaining other categories making up the balance.[7]

Despite the small figure, plastic bags are a major issue due to their form. The following facts highlight why the 1% is so dangerous for the environment:

  1. Plastic bags do not readily break down in nature and it is estimated it takes 20-100 years for them to decompose.
  2. They are often mistaken as jellyfish or food by wildlife; meaning they have a greater risk of affecting the environment. In fact, they are the 2nd deadliest threat to sea animal and birds.[8]
  3. Plastic bags can become serial killers as once the animal that ingested a plastic bag dies, it decays at a much faster rate than the bag; meaning the bag is re-released into the environment to be eaten or caught by another animal.  
  4. The slow rate of decay of plastic bags means that each bag compounds the problem because the bags simply accumulate.
  5. Due to their size and composition, plastic bags can get caught easily on other rubbish, causing an increasing amount of rubbish patches.

These factors combined highlight how plastic bags can cause significant environmental harm; despite the low ratio to other prominent polluting rubbish.

Is a plastic bag ban the best solution?

There has been much debate in Australia over the plastic bag ban.  Mostly, these are coming from consumers who believe the ban is about supermarkets profiting, rather than trying to be eco-friendly.

An article in 2017 highlighted a plastic bag ban would ultimately benefit the supermarkets financially. The article estimated the following costs of plastic bags[9]:

 Plastic bag cents 1.png

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The article states that:

“It’s estimated that Australian retailers give away 6 billion plastic bags each year. With each bag costing almost 3c, retailers stand to save more than A$170 million a year in direct costs. Selling these new bags at 15c each effectively creates another revenue stream potentially adding up to A$71 million in gross profit (6c x 1.18 billion units).”[10]

These figures are causing the general public to question the legitimacy of the supermarkets ‘environmental support’.

In addition to supermarket profits, there is also a question about the long-term benefits of a plastic bag ban.

South Australia implemented the country’s first ban in 2009. At this time, a survey was taken to determine the current pollution rate.  After the ban came into place, there was a reduction in litter – showcasing the success. The same results occurred in both Tasmania and the ACT. By 2012/13, lightweight plastic bag litter in SA had fallen by almost 50% from pre‐ban levels.  However, the last three surveys (until 2017) have seen steady increases in lightweight plastic bag litter with the 2015/16 result approaching the pre-ban 2009/10 levels.[11]

It is argued the reason for this is consumers are adapting to paying the extra 15cents per bag, and thus, the price is no longer a disincentive to use plastic bags.

The plastic bag alternatives

Further research highlights that banning plastic bags may create worse environmental impacts considering the product of alternatives. For example, a paper bag would need to be re-used at least three times, and cotton bags at least 131 times to have a lower environmental impact than single-use plastic bags regarding resource use, energy and greenhouse outcomes.[12]

Another argument is for bio-degradable plastic bags. However, while consumers might feel they are 'doing the right thing' by choosing biodegradable or degradable plastic, these products simply disintegrate into smaller and smaller pieces to become microplastic which causes havoc to wildlife.[13]

Despite the reasons against it, environmental experts and activists strongly support the current government legislation to discourage general public plastic bag use.

Looking to the future

The current purpose of banning the plastic bags is to reduce litter. This strategy reflects the original container deposit scheme purpose, and it is argued (as per the container deposit schemes) that this strategy is outdated. As time and technology have progressed, the focus should not just be on a ban of bags, but also be on how to recycle plastic bags to reduce the number of bags that end up in the environment.

Currently, plastic bags are incredibly hard to recycle due to their lightweight composition.  They cannot go in recycling bins as they are caught in recycling machinery and cause havoc for recycling facility operators.

However, new recycling systems and processes could be the answer.  Currently, supermarkets collect plastic bags and lightweight plastic to re-process into new plastic bags. With new recycling technologies and manufacturing systems, plastic bags are not far away from being part of the recycling economy.  But, until this time, legislation will be required to curb Australia’s plastic bag obsession and to reduce the number of bags that end up in our environment.