Dirty old bags
29th June 2004
A turtle ingests a plastic bag.
Mark Latham says a Labor Government will ban plastic bags outright if they are not voluntarily phased out by 2007. But with the 20 million being used in Australia everyday causing environmental havoc, how long can we afford to wait? Sushi Das reports.
There is one thing we know for sure: long after today's shoppers have passed away and their bodies have turned to dust, their plastic bags will still lie in the soil, refusing to decay. Environment groups estimate plastic bags can stay intact for up to 1000 years. It is no wonder, then, that the very mention of these powerful symbols of durability can invoke a serious bout of "bag-guilt".
Dianne Steele confesses to being particularly afflicted. As the automatic doors at Coles in South Melbourne slide open, she walks out, her tall frame curved under the weight of four or five plastic bags hanging from the ends of both arms.
"Yes, I use plastic bags," she says, in an OK-you-caught-me tone of voice. She looks down at them with shame. "I've seen so many seagulls with plastic bags caught on them. It's sad, I know. I must stop using plastic bags."
Inside the supermarket, checkout staff are busy stuffing shopping into grey plastic bags. For shoppers who don't want plastic, reusable green bags are usually available for $1.79 each, but today they are out of stock. Three days later, customers will discover the South Melbourne branch is still out of stock.
Coles, like many other major supermarkets in Australia, has pledged to reduce the use of plastic bags. A sign at the entrance to the store announces that white, reusable calico bags are available for sale. But a few paces down the first aisle, a thick wad of plastic bags carrying the Coles logo is hanging from a shelf stacked with loaves of bread. Two loaves can be bought for a discount price.
"This offer applies to customers who place both items into this bag," reads the print on the plastic bags provided.
Twenty million Australians use almost 7 billion plastic bags a year — nearly one plastic bag per person per day. Fifty three per cent of these bags come from big supermarkets and the rest from other retailers.
Where do they all go? According to a 2002 report by environmental consultants Nolan-ITU, commissioned by the Federal Government, about 60 per cent are reused as bin liners or for some other purpose.
About 36 per cent go straight into the rubbish. A small percentage end up as litter and a mere 2.7 per cent are recycled by being returned to retail outlets for processing and reuse as shopping bags
Shoppers are able to choose from paper bags,
calico bags and heavy duty reusable bags at
Coles supermarket in Glen Waverley.
In total, an estimated 6.67 billion plastic bags,
or 36,700 tonnes, get dumped in landfills.
And that's just in Australia.
Overseas, the picture is similar.
In China, polythene bags blowing around the streets
are called "white pollution".
In South Africa, their visual presence around the
countryside has won them the title of "national flower".
In India, multi-coloured plastic bags are everywhere, hanging off trees, lining river banks, blowing down railway lines, choking sacred cows and holding together every pile of rubbish the eye can see.
Apart from the visual pollution, their longevity means they clog drains and ruin rivers. They are lethal to marine life, kill livestock and trap birds.
According to Planet Ark, an international environment group that has taken a leading role in the push to reduce plastic bag use, at least 100,000 birds, whales, seals and turtles are killed by plastic bags each year worldwide.
Plastic bags cannot be digested or passed by an animal — they stay in the gut, causing pain and certain death. When dead animals decay, the bags are freed and often eaten again by other animals for many years to come.
Marine animals often mistake them for jellyfish and eat them, and birds, which cannot fly once they are entangled in them, die of starvation.
A farmer near Mudgee in NSW who carried out an autopsy on one of his dead calves found eight plastic bags in its stomach. The loss of the calf cost the farmer about $500.
In August 2000, an eight-metre whale became stranded and died on a Cairns beach. Planet Ark says an autopsy found the whale's stomach was tightly packed with six square metres of plastic, including many plastic bags.
But plastic bags are not only lethal to animals. In Bangladesh, serious flooding that caused major loss of life was linked to plastic bags blocking drains.
Many countries around the world have implemented a variety of measures to curb the use of plastic bags. Ireland, the only country with a tax on plastic bags paid directly by the customer, has probably been the most successful.
The introduction in 2001 of a levy equivalent to 27 cents slashed single-use plastic bag consumption by 90- 95 per cent over one year and more people switched to reusable bags.
In Denmark, a tax on shopping bags was introduced in 1994, reducing consumption of plastic and paper by 66 per cent.
Bangladesh banned the manufacture of plastic bags in 2002. Hong Kong prohibits retailers over a specified size from providing plastic bags free of charge, and the manufacture and use of plastic bags is banned in the Indian city of Mumbai.
In Finland, supermarkets pay a levy on the number of plastic bags used, Italy has a tax on plastic bags and Taiwan bans the distribution of free plastic bags.
In Australia, the plastic bag problem is still under discussion. In an arrangement with the Federal Government, Australian retailers have agreed to reduce the number of plastic bags they use by 25 per cent by the end of this year and by 50 per cent by the end of next year.
Retailers are attempting to do this by selling reusable bags, re-training staff in the use of plastic bags and establishing a dialogue with environment groups.
The Government has threatened to impose a 25-cent tax on each plastic bag if reduction targets are not met. But a final decision has not yet been made on this.
Earlier this month, Opposition Leader Mark Latham announced that a Labor Government would legislate to ban free single-use plastic bags if they are not voluntarily phased out by 2007.
The Australian Democrats favour a levy, as does Greens Senator Bob Brown. Planet Ark would accept a levy or a ban.
Hard campaigning by environment groups and the desire by political parties to address the public's environmental concerns mean retailers are now acutely aware that they must meet the first target of a 25 per cent reduction by the end of the year.
The Australian Retailers Association, which represents major supermarkets such as Coles, Woolworth’s, Franklin’s and IGA, has encouraged its members to commit to a code of practice to voluntarily reduce plastic bag use to protect businesses from "the damaging effects of a levy or ban".
Chief executive Stan Moore says politicians are responding to a "populist view" in their approach to plastic bags. Nevertheless, he says, major retailers are on track to meet the 25 per cent target, although he admits small retailers are lagging behind.
In Moore's opinion, a ban would result in a "consumer revolt" because people would be left with no suitable alternative to the plastic bag, and a levy would place an unacceptable burden on small retailers. What's needed, he argues, is "sound science" to come up with an alternative to the plastic bag.
But doubts about the environmental credentials of biodegradable shopping bags have already been raised in a recent report released by state and federal environment ministers.
The report questions whether bags that naturally break down when exposed to water and the atmosphere would do so in a landfill site.
It also says degradable bags might increase the production of harmful greenhouse gasses.
John Dee, the founder of Planet Ark, says the Government is relying too heavily on the major supermarket chains to bring about change across the board in the retail sector.
The big supermarkets distribute only about half of all plastic bags used in Australia, while the remainder are given away by corner shops, fast food outlets and other small retailers.
He says the smaller retailers are doing little to curb plastic bag use, so there is "very little chance" of achieving a 25 per cent reduction among all retailers.
Despite his pessimism, he says consumers are becoming increasingly aware of the impact of plastic bags on the environment and the fact that they cost retailers $173 million a year, a cost that is passed on to consumers.
Dee says even companies that manage landfills are sick of plastic bags.
"Most landfill managers I have spoken to have said plastic bags are the single worst problem they have to cope with in landfill. They hate them with a passion."
On a windy day, up to 25,000 plastic bags can be blown off landfills. One NSW landfill management company employs between two to four people at each landfill site just to stop plastic bags blowing away, Dee says. So what is the solution to the plastic bag problem in Australia?
The Nolan-ITU report found a 25 cent levy on single-use plastic bags paid directly by the consumer would have a strong degree of public support and would result in a significant reduction in plastic bag use and an increase in the use of reusable bags.
So far, the Federal Government has chosen to effectively ignore the findings of its own report, preferring instead to ask retailers to voluntarily reduce plastic bag use over several years.
But a number of small towns around Australia are not prepared to wait and have taken matters into their own hands. Plastic bags are banned in Coles Bay, Tasmania, and the NSW towns of Kangaroo Valley, Huskisson, Mogo and Oyster Bay. A few key tourist towns such an Anglesea, in Victoria, are set to follow suit.
While the Government remains shy of introducing a levy, some retailers believe it is the best way forward. The Bunnings warehouse chain charges 10 cents for a plastic bag.
Homewares retailer IKEA introduced its own 10 cent plastic bag levy in one of its Victorian stores and achieved a 97 per cent weekly reduction in plastic bag use. Fast food retailer McDonald's has never used plastic bags and Red Rooster recently scrapped them.
However, major supermarkets argue making customers pay for plastic bags to change their behaviour would slow sales and disadvantage low-income groups.
But Aldi, the newest supermarket chain in Australia, charges 15 cents for a bag and 99 cents for a reusable bag, and is actually expanding its network of stores.
So Australia, albeit slowly, is making moves to curb the widespread use of free plastic bags. But in the absence of a levy or a ban, the Federal Government and major retailers are relying on "bag-guilt" alone to change consumers' behaviour.
This process may be the slowest and most inefficient way to achieve change at a time when the need for change is pressing.
After all, by the end of today, another 20 million free plastic bags will have been handed out to shoppers and, for some, the last thing on their minds will be the fate of the whales.