Plastic is a phenomenal material. Its astounding versatility and durability has enabled us to make products that directly improve our standard of living and material well-being. Modern technologies as diverse as medical equipment, mobile phones, aircraft, clothing and food packaging are made possible by plastic.
Conversely, plastic’s durability, combined with its relative low cost, presents a slew of environmental problems. It is (mostly) made from non-renewable fossil fuels and its production is energy intensive. The average plastic bag has a useful life measured in just minutes, but it then persists for decades, centuries or even millennia.
Being lightweight it can readily escape from the waste system and is easily distributed throughout the environment as litter. Its impact on marine life is especially concerning.
Back in 2003 Australians were using almost 6.9 billion single-use plastic bags each year. Through a range of strategies, including environment campaigns, retailer activities, state and local bans and individual action, that number is now around 3.9 billion. Three billion fewer bags is a good start, but there’s still a way to go.
The national landscape has changed considerably over the past decade. South Australia, the ACT, Tasmania, the Northern Territory, numerous towns and a single council – Fremantle – have enacted restrictions on retailers distributing free bags. In most cases, the measure has been a levy on supermarket-style bags and a prohibition on providing them free of charge.
In 2002 Ireland became the first country to impose a tax on single-use plastic bags. Within three years the number of bags used annually dropped from 1.3 billion to 113 million (or one-tenth). Since then an ever-growing list of jurisdictions have limited access to free bags. Some of these include Bangladesh, Belgium, China, Denmark, Ethiopia, Israel, Italy, Los Angeles, Mexico City, San Francisco, South Africa, United Arab Emirates and Wales. In other locations, like Norway and Germany, retailers impose a cost on plastic bags without government regulation.
Breaking our dependence on single-use plastic bags will take effort. Stakeholders need to consider: whether to implement a total or partial ban or a levy, which bags and which retailers are covered and which aren’t, and how the regulations will be enforced. Furthermore, retailers need to develop processes to address the changes, including procuring replacement stock, staff training, accounting for sales and so on.
In 2002 the Government and the Australian Retailers Association established a Code of Practice for the Management of Plastic Bags, which committed to achieving a 25 percent reduction in bag use in 2004 and 50 percent by 2005, Additionally, they agreed to achieve a 15 percent in-store bag recycling rate by 2004. The reduction target wasn’t achieved and the in-store recycling rate is still well below the target.
[quote style=’1′ cite=”]Back in 2003 Australians were using almost 6.9 billion single-use plastic bags each year. Through a range of strategies, including environment campaigns, retailer activities, state and local bans and individual action, that number is now around 3.9 billion.[/quote]
Planet Ark ran the first public bag reduction campaign way back in 2002, but we recognise that education needs to be supported by action from governments and retailers. A ban or, better yet, a levy that provides an avoidable incentive for Australians to remember to take reusable bags when they go shopping is essential.
Research undertaken in South Australia immediately before its ban and in the following month showed a 30 percent increase in the number of shoppers bringing their own bag to the store. Further research by the Boomerang Alliance in 2015 indicated that 75 percent of people were highly supportive of the ban.
Australia now has the luxury to look around the world, and indeed around the country, to see that both shoppers and retailers readily adjust to bag reduction programs and to assess which programs are the most effective.
Planet Ark is relatively agnostic about the structure of any program, as long as it has a positive environmental impact. It’s time for the remaining states to join the leaders and implement a system that reduces waste and litter.
Brad Gray is the head of Campaigns for Planet Ark.