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Don't bag plastic bans



As with most things now jeopardising the balance of natural environments, plastic is not in itself evil. It is malleable and therefore versatile, cheap to produce at scale, and generally impervious to leakage.

Plastic bagsModernity is unimaginable without the products that can be made from plastic. Its synthetic (or semi-synthetic) polymer material is found in every room in the house, as well as in offices and commercial spaces. For people in poorer parts of the world, the plastic option is often more affordable than ceramic, wood or steel.  

But the ready convenience of plastic has left us in a stupor, manufacturing and disposing products at much faster rates than compounds can break down. This includes inexplicably over-packaging things like fresh fruit, toys and electrical appliances.

An alarming portion of this waste finds its way into our waterways. In 2010 alone, eight million tons of plastic went into the sea. Scientists expect plastic pollution in our oceans to treble from 2015 levels in 2025. It goes without saying that the degradation of marine environments poses a threat to creatures in them, and by extension to humans who make a living and take food from there.

This is the backdrop to the ban on disposable plastic bags now in place in major Australian supermarkets and some retailers. It is no secret that this transition was coming.

South Australia, Canberra, the Northern Territory and Tasmania banned these bags in quick succession from 2009. Victoria plans to do so by the end of this year. Aldi and Bunnings customers have been coping without free plastic bags for years. Around 40 countries have also introduced a ban on single-use shopping bags or imposed levies. It is not some radical scheme devised overnight.

Yet it has been met with 'bag rage' in recent weeks as the policy was rolled out at Coles and Woolworths. Checkout staff have been abused; customers have taken to pilfering baskets and trolleys rather than purchasing a reusable bag. Conservative commentators have weighed in on how stupid it all is.


"If personal preference for free, convenient plastic bags were to trump the prospect of curbing environmental damage, we can look to a really rubbish future."


We can speculate on the reasons for this resistance, much of which boils down to human nature. We don't like change. We don't like being told what to do and being unable to refuse. We don't like having to make an effort or think about alternatives and solutions. For those suspicious of fads, the ban against plastic bags would certainly seem like one, and perhaps it is reasonable to wonder about benefits.

But at the heart of it, being mad about this particular inconvenience is about refusing to accept one's part in improving the collective lot. Whether we like it or not, this is the one planet we have. There is no Plan B.

The logic that what does not get used is not then disposed — to find its way into the bellies of hapless turtles and whales — is simple enough. It is six billion plastic bags less per year that won't end up in landfill, rivers and oceans. If personal preference for free, convenient plastic bags were to trump the prospect of curbing environmental damage, we can look to a really rubbish future.

Fortunately, the switch from plastic bags seems to be only part of a growing awareness, not just about waste but our general attitudes to consumption. The optimistic view is that most people want to do the right thing and are only looking to be validated, through a combination of disincentives, social rewards and moral argument.

In a time when environmental challenges can feel so overwhelming — even paralysing — reorganising behaviour around reusable shopping bags is a rare, concrete thing that people can do in their daily life. It does not make sense to begrudge them this.

There are also grassroots groups encouraging modest habits like taking reusable cups to the barista, declining straws at bars and restaurants, packing washable cutlery, and offering a non-disposable container for takeaway food.

Whether we participate in shifts like this or not, those who do are responding to the state of a shared environment, which means that all of us ultimately benefit. The question then is not whether we can be bothered, but how dare we not?



Fatima MeashamFatima Measham is a Eureka Street consulting editor. She hosts the ChatterSquare podcast, tweets as @foomeister and blogs on Medium.

Topic tags: Fatima Measham, plastic, environment, climate change, consumerism, waste



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Existing comments

Inadequate or inappropriate communication seems to be a big part of the problem. I learnt a lot from the book inspired by a question from David Suzuki, " I'm Right and your an Idiot". Would be good to do an article on it. Otherwise, Para 160 of Laudato Si is a good focus for us.

Michael Gill | 06 July 2018  

Non-reusable plastic bags were never free. We paid for them whether we took them or not. Stopping their use has nothing to do with the environmental concerns of the major supermarket chains. Now they save on providing bags and profit on selling the reusables. This is just profit all the way and nobody should be fooled to the contrary!

Damien Stapleton | 06 July 2018  

The following is an extract from Pope Francis’s encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si, which is meant for all people, and which I recommend that people read, if they haven't already done so: "The Earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth. In many parts of the planet, the elderly lament that once beautiful landscapes are now covered with rubbish. Industrial waste and chemical products utilised in cities and agricultural areas can lead to bioaccumulation in the organisms of the local population, even when levels of toxins in those places are low. Frequently no measures are taken until after people’s health has been irreversibly affected. These problems are closely linked to a throwaway culture which affects the excluded just as it quickly reduces things to rubbish."

Grant Allen | 06 July 2018  

Maybe there is a Plan B. With the ban on shopping bags in South Australia the sales of plastic bin liners went through the roof. Before the ban the single use shopping bags were recycled in many ways (including holding rubbish) before they ultimately became a long term environmental problem. Plan B could be making the single use bag biodegradable to get plastics out of the environment more quickly. Then we just have to worry about all the other plastics we put in the garbage bin.

Jim Bond | 06 July 2018  

100% cotton string bags seem to start at $6 so changing to a non-plastic alternative will be a challenge for some. The stores could get serious and stop selling their 'reusable' bags as they also end in landfill and the ocean. If the supermarkets moved to paper grocery bags I'd be impressed.

Leo Farrelly | 06 July 2018  

Yes, how dare we not? I have no children, and yet my heart breaks for the mess we are leaving future generations. I struggle to understand how any reasonable person, and especially, parents, could begrudge this small simple action. Or any action, for that matter, that would help ensure the health, happiness and indeed survival of their descendants.

Jen | 06 July 2018  

The supermarkets have made a motes selling the 15c heavy duty bags, as well as major savings by not providing the free ones. Meanwhile, where is the readily available substitute for the smaller bags to put fruit and veg in - those that are not already pre-bagged? Do I detect a conspiracy? A far better way would have been to oblige ALL retailers to convert to providing biodegradable plastic bags of all needed sizes, f.o.c. And include removing packs of non-biodegradable sandwich and garbage bags from the retailers' shelves!!! Now THAT would be a fair dinkum response to the problem.

Maxine Barry | 07 July 2018  

Michael and Damien, publicity has been extensive and well advanced. And Laudato Si is convincing to most of us. Watch "War on waste". Even the promos are enough. Going shopping without bags is a trite careless! Bunnings have never offered bags, and people don't complain. We're used to it, we don't think about it. Supermarkets should only sell biodegradable multi use bags for at least $2. Yes, buy your bin bags. Hopefully they will have to be biodegradable too.

Marjorie Edwards | 08 July 2018  

G.A., I live in Melbourne Australia - presumably a gold card case of a "throwaway culture". How far do I have to travel to find beautiful landscapes covered with rubbish? I've never seen any bulk rubbish, except at council tips (see the picture at the top of the post). Hardly surprising - one would, after all, expect to see excrement at a sewage plant. The most advanced capitalist "throwaway culture" countries are the most environmentally conscious. What is the Pope on about?

HH | 09 July 2018  

I cannot understand why people are so up in arms, because they can’t get plastic bags any longer: if they look and appreciate what plastic has done to the environment, by people who had no respect for the world environment: lots respect that and use correctly, but the truth is ,it has caused harm to wildlife, sea life and the environment. All they have to do is buy permanent shopping bags that will last for many years. Really folks, stop whinging.

Michael Richards | 14 July 2018  

We have been exporting many tonnes of rubbish to China, and they are now, rightfully, refusing to take any more. We will have to deal with our own waste now. The one-use bag ban in the ACT has resulted in people putting the thicker bags in the rubbish, which is obviously not a positive thing. All plastic bags should be banned.

Penelope | 25 July 2018  

If this was actually a plastic bag ban, great! But it seems the writer has bought into the propaganda from the 2 big corps (Woolies and Coles) who are merely raising revenue by selling "re-usable" bags for 10 cents, which is simply adding to the use of plastic bags while making money along the way.

AURELIUS | 30 July 2018  

I agree with Michael Gill that communication plays a critical role in this whole scenario. Because it could be that most people do not understand the seriousness of the 'backdrop' that grounded the ban on plastic bags. That maybe there are only a few who truly understands that such little efforts mean much in preserving mother nature. But also, a sad possibility exists; that maybe some have heard but refused to listen. That may be, many do know about what is actually happening and yet, just cannot be bothered- to take action. A great reminder from Fatima: 'how dare we not'.

Robin Redbreast | 09 August 2018  

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