War on plastic bags

Living Well | Kathryn Kernohan | Posted on 26 June 2018

A Victoria-wide ban on single-use plastic bags is part of a community groundswell for change.

Close to half a million single-use plastic bags end up in Australian landfill every hour. 

A staggering 13 million plastic bags are used across the country daily. And, each year, 50 million plastic bags – approximately two for each member of our population – end up in Australia’s waterways. 

The figures are staggering and momentum is gathering against them. 

Queensland and Western Australia will ban single-use plastic bags from 1 July, bringing them into line with the ACT, South Australia and Tasmania where similar bans exist. Victoria committed to a ban last year, with a commencement date for this year yet to be announced. New South Wales has not committed to a ban.

Plastic bags take between 400 and 1000 years to break down.
Plastic bag on beach. Photo: Getty

“There is strong scientific evidence pointing to the significant impact plastic bags present to the environment, including risks to marine life and pollution of waterways,” says Simon Mikedis, RACV’s manager of environmental sustainability.

“Being non-biodegradable, the bags just become smaller and smaller toxic pieces of plastic which often lead to ingestion by animals low on the food chain,” says Simon.

The flow-on effect can also be deadly for larger mammals. Earlier this year a sperm whale was found washed up on a Spanish beach with almost 30 kilograms of rubbish, including plastic bags, blocking its digestive system. 

Plastic bags take between 400 and 1000 years to break down, and Simon says this lengthy process can cause “major issues due to chemical leaching and animal ingestion”.

The success of a legislated ban has been demonstrated in the ACT, where lightweight bags have been banned since 2011. A review in 2014 found it had contributed to a 36 per cent drop in the number of plastic bags going to landfill. 

Many other countries have also successfully reduced their plastic bag usage. In Germany, many supermarkets have introduced fees for plastic bags. The country’s plastic bag usage has fallen from six billion in 2000 to one billion in 2012.

A similar levy in Ireland, in effect since 2002, led to a reduction in bag use of around 90 per cent. In 2015, after England legislated a five-pence bag fee at major retailers, the number of plastic bags found on UK beaches dropped by almost half.

In Victoria, towns across the state have led the way, showing how collaboration between councils, traders and community can reduce the use of plastic bags.

The policy has led to a significant reduction in the incidence of single-use plastic on the Surf Coast.

The seaside town of Anglesea on the Great Ocean Road, which has a population of just over 2500, has been largely plastic-bag free for more than a decade. 

Robert Skehan, a member of community group Plastic Bag Free Torquay, says the “close-knit nature of the community and support of local businesses” was influential in creating change.

“A number of staff in the IGA at the time were passionate about protecting the environment and worked with store management to implement the voluntary ban, replacing single-use plastic bags with paper bags which were available to shoppers for 20 cents each,” he says. 

The lead shown by IGA prompted other local businesses to follow suit. These days around 90 per cent of Anglesea retailers operate plastic-bag free, ultimately reducing the town’s annual consumption of plastic bags by around 200,000.

Certificates of recognition are awarded to bag-free traders, and reusable bags are placed in holiday accommodation for the benefit of visitors to the town. 

Robert adds that Surf Coast Shire Council, which includes towns such as Torquay, Lorne and Jan Juc, has implemented a Plastic Use Policy that prohibits single-use plastics (including bags, water bottles and straws) at events and markets held on council land.

“This policy has led to a significant reduction in the incidence of single-use plastic on the Surf Coast,” he says. 

There has been similar progress in Warburton, which is working towards being the first plastic-bag free town on the Yarra River. 

Community group Plastic Bag Free Warburton has introduced reusable bags to the local IGA supermarket and delivered education programs to primary school students.

One year into the campaign, Warburton IGA reported a reduction of up to 15 per cent in plastic bag use.

The South Melbourne Market has also pre-empted the statewide ban and has been plastic-bag free since April.

Rubbish washed up on the beach
Dolphin with a plastic bag in the ocean

General manager Ian Sumpter said a survey conducted last year found 90 per cent of market shoppers supported a ban, and 86 per cent of people were willing to pay for alternative bags.

The market’s BYO Bag campaign encourages customers to bring reusable bags from home, with traders also selling paper bags for 20 cents and recycled Boomerang Bags, an initiative begun in Queensland, available for use. 

Single-use plastic bags are the low-hanging fruit in the war on waste and plastic pollution.

Robert Skehan and others who have lobbied for change say the ban is only a small step towards fighting plastic pollution.

“Single-use plastic bags are the low-hanging fruit in the war on waste and plastic pollution. There seems to be a growing trend, particularly within supermarkets, to increase plastic packaging of fresh fruit and vegetables, most of which is totally unnecessary,” he says.

So what progress does he hope for over the next decade?

“We would hope that awareness of the impact of plastic pollution becomes more widespread, behaviour changes bring political and commercial pressure, and solutions are found to eliminate single-use plastic litter and waste to landfill within 10 years.” 

What about us? 

In a story about plastic waste, it’s fair to ask about the plastic that wraps your RoyalAuto. In order to protect your magazine from the elements, we use Biowrap, a biodegradable plastic that breaks down much quicker (approximately two to 18 months) than non-biodegradable alternatives. It also doesn’t leave any harmful residue in the environment. RACV has drastically reduced its use of plastic bags in our shops over the past three years and fully supports the proposed ban on plastic bags.

Five tips for reducing plastic bag use

1. Reusable bags

Keep tightly folded calico and canvas bags in the car glovebox, or in the bottom of your bag or backpack. Reuse old plastic bags as many times as possible.

2. Contain it

Markets and bulk produce stores are happy for customers to supply their own containers for vegetables, pasta, grains and other products. Some companies sell reusable produce bags.

3. Beeswax

Invest in reusable beeswax wraps rather than using plastic for lunches. They are environmentally friendly and keep food fresher.

4. Bin liners

Try using old newspapers to line kitchen rubbish bins, rather than plastic bags. Wash out your bin more regularly and compost food scraps.

5. Redcycle

Drop soft-plastic goods (including plastic bags) into a REDcycle bin, found in more than 830 supermarkets across the country, and they’ll be reborn as recycled plastic products.