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Plastic, like diamonds, is forever: time to use fewer bags

World of bag people: a million a minute are used globally, with Australians churning through almost one a day on average. Flickr/Heal the Bay

Between 30 million and 50 million plastic bags enter the environment as litter in Australia each year.

These environmentally damaging bags - produced to be used once and then thrown away - are a symbol of our disposable society. When future generations reflect on our convenience-maximising consumer behaviour, the permanence of disfigured, shredded, flying white flowers (A.K.A. plastic bags) will testify to a discard culture and dispose culture in the name of brief convenience. Like a globally pervasive cancer, plastic bags everywhere entangle, drown, asphyxiate, and starve animals that mistake their wavy, sun-struck allure for food. Bags adorn trees and fences, becoming the new indestructible urban weed. A colony of bags visible from space (it is 15 million square kilometres!) has accrued in the Pacific, an enormous soup of tiny plastic nodules.

We know the bags do untold damage, but we only act on what costs us directly

Most of us are aware that plastic bags create litter, kill wild life, clog drains, inflicting wounds on wild and inhabited environs alike. But unfortunately, awareness of the peril of plastic has not changed behaviour at the check-out; if offered bags at no additional cost or inconvenience, most consumers will, without a second thought, allow their groceries or takeaway to be packed into lightweight 35-micron-thin polyethylene plastic bags that are usually used only once more to line their bins or pick up after their dogs. When it matters most, the community’s apparent support for reducing plastic bag use is not backed up by altered packing behaviour at the check-out.

Most consumers do not:

  • Re-use bags for storage or carriage until they are irreparable;
  • Recycle single use bags;
  • Bring their own durable reinforced bags;
  • Refuse single use bags;
  • Ask for biodegradable or compostable bags.

Bear in mind that no human has, or will ever witness the entirety of a discarded non-biodegradable bag’s natural decomposition since it was invented by Swedish engineer Sten Gustaf Thulin in the early 1960s and patented in 1965. We can only surmise that bags will take 50 generations to decompose, with most travelling through, or ending up in, Earth’s three elements: the soil (as landfill), water, and briefly afloat in air.

According to the European Union (EU) Executive, Europe alone produced 3.4 million tonnes of plastic bag carriers - the equivalent in weight of 2 million cars - in 2008. Only 6% of plastic bags were recycled in the EU in 2010. Plastic bags are extraordinary travellers; I have had occasion to clear plastic litter delivered by trans-Siberian currents to a remote uninhabited Norwegian Arctic beach. One million plastic bags are used every minute worldwide - plastic is endemic at supermarkets, groceries, liquor stores, pharmacists, newsagents, and retailers.

Flickr/Mr T in D.C.

Bans and levies work to fill the personal responsibility gap

Whilst heart-rending photos of plastic-struck albatrosses, whales, seals, and turtles have not altered consumer behaviour, bans and levies on bags have clearly been effective. Ireland’s imposition of a plastic bag levy, or “plastax”, originally at 15 Euro cents later rising to 22 cents, slashed personal use from 328 bags per person a year in 2002 to just 18 in 2010. There was a 95% reduction in plastic bag litter and 90% of shoppers were using long-life bags within a year.

The average Australian uses a staggering 345 plastic bags a year. On the encouraging side, lightweight check-out bags are now banned in South Australia, the Northern Territory and the ACT, where bag use and acceptability has since declined precipitously. Target banned bag use in June 2009.

Australia still has some way to go, considering bans were imposed as early as 2008 in China (which had a three billion a year pre-ban habit), a country which cannot boast a strong record of eco-advocacy. After deadly floods attributed to storm drain obstruction by plastic products, Bangladesh has also taken action, as has South Africa, Kenya and Uganda. The United Nations has called for plastic bag bans to go global.

Meanwhile, the Australian Retailers Association (ARA) argues that reusing durable bags will lead to cross-contamination and infection-risks. The ARA has never acknowledged that all consumers (including those who make shopping trips with privately purchased durable bags) pay to subsidise single-use bags by paying higher retail prices. Some argue that the substitution of lightweight plastic bags with bin liners, paper bags, cardboard boxes and durable bags that are used just once could exact greater environmental cost.

Don’t wait for policy: how to help now

While the debate on plastic bag ban and levy rages, we can individually help by:

  • Support plastic bag bans or levies: 70% of 15,000 EU residents polled in 2011 support such a restrictive policy;
  • Use bags made from long-life, sustainably-sourced materials that last years;
  • Bring your own green durable bags for grocery, takeaway, and even retail therapy; each needs to be used at least four times for a net eco-benefit, but they can be re-used over 100 times. As a lesser option, ask for biodegradable and compostable bags at the checkout;
  • Bring back damaged bags to recycling collection points;
  • Carry single items or a few items in your pockets or hands;
  • Refuse single-use lightweight bags even if they are apparently free;
  • Advocate for synthetic reusable bags as a must-have accessory for the eco-aware, as well as discounted groceries or Loyalty Points for declining bags;
  • Object to discardable plastic drink and food containers
  • Use newspaper for bin liners, or hose down unlined bins

Plastic, somewhat like diamonds, is passed over many generations - an eternity in human terms. Let us all try restricting its supply and constraining its use, for the sake of our living, breathing, world.

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