Wednesday, 11 July 2018

There’s good cause to ‘Bag the Ban’

With the attack on the single-use plastic bag ban already playing out not even a month after Coles and Woolworths rolled out its ban on single-use plastic bags in New South Wales, some are calling for the scheme to be bagged. So, does it tackle the problem and who really gains?

What is the problem?

Image result for animals caught in plastic
Graphic images show the extent of the
damage plastic has on animals in the oceans
Of course, and as Coles and Woolworths have been eager to explain, the environment is the main stakeholder here. Images of turtles’ intestines rupturing because of the noxious gasses caused by the plastic in the stomach of the turtle rapidly come to mind to those who have investigated such issues. On the week of June 4 a pilot whale was killed with 7.9 kilograms of plastic in it – 80 plastic bags were found to have been swallowed by the whale. 100,000 marine creatures die each year due to plastic entanglement while approximately two-thirds of the world’s fish are suffering from plastic ingestion. This is a big problem. It’s a problem for the environment – for the animals that have to face the ramifications of our pathetic failings -, but also for society. What does it say about us as a society, as a people, if we can’t even place a bag in the bin to avoid such deaths.

Nonetheless, this is the case. And to those eager to champion the case for us as a society, I concede the fact that some isn’t the consumer’s fault. Even disposed of rubbish can end up in waterways – a minority of plastic bags and other such litter in the environment has escaped landfill, or the bins that were meant to contain them in the first place. However, we do have to acknowledge the fact that we are a littering nation.

But is plastic bag litter the real issue? This is what many of those who champion for the environment ask when challenging the plastic bag ban. The Environmental Protection Agency reported that plastic bags only account for around 2% of landfill. Other forms of rubbish – cigarette butts, disposable takeaway packaging and other such plastics – make up the majority of rubbish that enters landfill and waterways. Even other materials like Styrofoam, another packaging option, presents a threat to the environment, making their way into drains, waterways and then, into the unlucky animal likely to mistake them for food. The fact is that if we wanted to target plastics that enter the waterways and that do present a real issue, we could go much further than this, by aiming for products and materials that really do challenge the environment.

Admittedly, this is a step in the right direction, which we should appreciate, but it is one that could bring on consequences that could mean that the net gain is really, very minimal. Thus, when the supermarkets try to draw on those heartstrings in the next advertisement you see, just remember that it isn’t quite how they paint it.

Further, will this help pollution?

Considering that plastic bags aren’t the largest contributor to plastic pollution, the effect won’t be that large on overall pollution. Sure, it is going to help animals that are targeted by plastic bags, like the often-called-upon turtle, who mistakes the plastic bag for jellyfish, and thus, devours it for tea, not knowing that it’s demise was hidden within. So that is one large benefit behind the scheme. But if we were to judge this holistically, we could consider this to have minimal effect. As already mentioned, it’s a step in the right direction, but not a large one.

Despite the smallness of the problem, the ban does result in dramatic reductions in single use plastic bag usage. When implemented in an experiment in regional Victoria throughout Coles, Woolworths and IGA, a 79% reduction was noted, while when implemented in Bunnings – the only large retailer in NSW to have a plastic bag ban – there was a reduction of 80% in the use of plastic bags, with a small amount of people choosing to buy the plastic bags. Ireland saw a 90% reduction in the use of the single use bags within 6 months – no doubt due to the large 22c/bag charge – after it introduced the scheme in 2002. And England saw an 85% reduction in single use plastic bag usage when the scheme was implemented in 2015 while Los Angeles saw a massive 94% reduction in their use when consumers where charged for the bags. As such, we can predict large drops in single use plastic bag usage in the future.

But there’s the catch – ‘we can predict large drops in single use plastic bag usage’. Something has to replace those single use plastic bags. Or, many things. You see, single use plastic bags aren’t really single use. The majority of families reuse the bags as bin liners. It is only through this, that the plastic bags end up in landfill.  The new reusable bags aren’t suited to bin lining, meaning that more people are set to buy bin liners – another thin plastic bag of sorts that will just end up in landfill. When South Australia implemented a single use plastic bag ban, 90% of households used the bags to line their bins, and only 15% of households bought bin liners, most likely to supplement the single use bags. After the ban, 80% of households bought bin liners. See the problem? When Coles and Woolworths ban the ‘single use plastic bag’, they are creating a need for more bin liners, which are larger and slightly thicker than the single use plastic bags, meaning that they take longer to degrade. So really, people are going to stop using thinner, smaller and more quickly broken-down bags, and are going to begin using bigger, thicker bin liners – it doesn’t make environmental sense. You heard about the massive drop in single use plastic bag usage in Ireland previously. What you didn’t hear was that their bin liner sales skyrocketed – an increase of 77%. So on top of their previous bin liner usage, they just got 77% more households. Presuming that 15% of households bought bin liners – the same figure as quote for South Australia - we can see 92% of families bought bin liners. That just negated the 90% drop in plastic bag usage. Case Closed.
Better than what? Picture: Kata Carruthers/Facebook
Kata Carruthers, Facebook

Even further, the bags that retailers are selling aren’t even durable. A quick Google search will fill your screen with dissatisfied customers and their broken ‘reusable bags’. These bags very quickly end up in landfill, and landfill is filled not only with the bin liners, but also the ‘reusable’ bags.
Sounds like a pretty average environmental policy to me…

And even if they were durable, people are likely to revert back to their habits once they become accustomed to the 15 cents they fork out per bag. This is what we saw in Ireland – people are used to the tax on plastic bags and now just take it like a GST – people are eventually going to just throw these out, creating more waste, and more damaging waste due to the supposedly stronger composition of these bags, which logically leads to an extended period of time which it takes to break-down. Surely this is worse for the environment…

Why are supermarkets really doing this?

So, if this conclusion can be reached, why are supermarkets banning the single use plastic bag? The answer is simple – it is good business. Why spend $171 million on plastic bags that you are going to give away for free when you could make $71 million selling other bags? It makes business sense, especially if you can put lipstick on the pig, and sell it as environmental policy. Clever, very clever…


The supermarkets have done well to pull the wool (Maybe that’s why it’s called Woolworths?) over the consumer’s eyes. They’ve convinced you they’re cleaning up the environment. And while this may be partially true, the real incentive for these supermarkets is the dollars, and if anything, they’re damaging the environment with an increase in bin liner sales.

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