The place of plastic


Bag Levy TrialPlastic is for when when durability is required. It has been in widespread use for only half a century. It has come to be associated with modernity. Indeed water in plastic bottles is almost regarded as a fashion accessory.

Ingenious marketing has conned consumers into believing that tap water is less healthy. In fact bottled water is arguably less healthy, if people are missing out on fluoride available in tap water, or if bacteria accumulate in an opened bottle because the water is not drunk immediately.

Public debate about bottled water is only beginning. A recent discussion paper released by the Edmund Rice Centre calls on consumers of bottled water to be more thoughtful about the consequences of their practice:

'Have we considered whether it is environmentally, economically and politically sustainable? We need to think more consciously about what we are doing.'

On the other hand, there is some progress towards reducing the use of plastic bags. Earlier this month, the South Australian Government introduced legislation to ban lightweight plastic shopping bags that are used to carry items home from the supermarket.

Unfortunately a mooted national ban was rejected last January, and most other states except Victoria appear to be resisting pressure for a ban in the near future. In Victoria, up to 10 Safeway and Coles supermarkets are being recruited by the State Government for a month-long trial beginning in August. Shoppers at participating supermarkets will pay between 10 and 25 cents per plastic bag. The levy is set to become a major 'kitchen table' political issue, with testerday's Herald-Sun front page story describing it as 'another financial blow to cash-strapped consumers'.

Like water bottles, the bags are designed for single or short-term use. Because they are durable, they take hundreds of years to break down in landfill. They are produced from plastic polymer, which is derived from non-renewable resources. South Australia's Zerowaste website asserts that while plastic bags can be recycled, only a tiny proportion of plastic bags are in fact collected and reprocessed.

The website also urges consumers to rethink their use of bin liners. It says using plastic bags to line bins has become an easy, but environmentally unfriendly, alternative to wrapping rubbish or washing bins.

Bin liners have been used for only a few decades. Prior to that, people wrapped rubbish in newspaper or put it directly into the bin and washed it after emptying. We have come to believe that such practices are necessarily unhygienic. In all likelihood, it's the convenience and modernity of bin liners that appeals to us.

Plastic has its place, when durability is required. The use of plastics in the manufacture of household appliances has enabled them to be priced at a level affordable to most people. But such durability has a significant environmental cost. It is precious, to be used for the sake of necessity rather than convenience.

Edmund Rice Centre Just News (PDF 3MB)
South Australian Government Zerowaste

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street. He also teaches in the Media and Communications Department at the University of Sydney.


Topic tags: michael mullins, plastic, durability, plastic bags, environment



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Existing comments

I can't believe anyone still uses plastic shopping bags - although evidently people may say the same thing about me and my bin-liners!

The cloth bags that are available at supermarkets are cheap and durable. My wife and I bought one a week each time we went grocery shopping, until we had accumulated enough to accommodate a whole week's shopping.

What surprises me more is the number of salespeople who still place goods in plastic bags without asking the customer if they want one.

I bought a CD on the weekend, and not only did the girl behind the counter put it in a plastic bag - she got snooty when I told her I didn't NEED a bag!

I wonder how many bags would be saved if all salespeople made a rule of asking the customer if they wanted one? People may be more likely to say 'no' than to speak up without being asked.

Charles Boy | 30 June 2008  

When I forget my GREEN bag, which is often, I say to the check-out person as they receive my goods, "save the bag". They ALWAYS get the message and don't put the items in a new plastic bag. Maybe its up to us to do the requesting rather than expecting 'them' to do the asking.

davidhicks | 30 June 2008  

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