When plastic is no longer fantastic
Australians’ love affair with plastic shopping bags appears far from over.
In the remote town of Zhongdian high on the Tibetan plateau, in the markets of Mumbai and in Coles Bay on Tasmania’s east coast, they are already banned. The plastic shopping bag has made t free run 2 he free run 2 transition from a much heralded convenience to a global environmental scourge.
Australians use an estimated 6.9 billion of them each a year. About 60 per cent of these are reused in households, as bin liners or for some other purpose. Fewer than 3 per cent are recycled in the conventional sense of being returned to retail outlets for processing and reuse as shopping bags. Another 36 per cent go straight into the rubbish. In total, an estimated 36,700 tonnes of plastic bags find their way into the cou free run 2 ntry’s landfill rubbish. A small percentage end up as litter, on the roads and in the waterways.
According to a report released last week by the federal Department of Environment, in store recycling programs have been largely unsuccessful, with just 2.7 per cent of bags being returned. More than half of all plastic bags used by Australians emanate from supermarkets.
Last August federal and state environment ministers backed away from the imposition of a plastic bag levy, deciding instead that supermar free run 2 kets must halve the number of plastic bags used by the end of 2005. If they fail to do so, there is the threat of a 25 cent levy being imposed on every bag. The Victorian Government favours a levy, as do some environmental groups and the Australian Democrats.
The ministers opted to give both retailers and the public more time to voluntarily move away from the use of plastic bags. That is clearly not happening.
While encouraging developments such as biodegradable bags have been slow to gain acceptance, some retailers have already imposed their own levy. One national hardware chain already charges customers 10 cents for every plastic bag, as do a small number of other retailers. Also a number of local councils in Tasmania, NSW and South Australia have banned the use of bags within their shopping precincts.
It would be preferable if Australians voluntarily abandoned the bag, but successive campaigns suggest this is not going to happen any time soon. In 1997 Australians were encouraged to “say no to plastic”. Since then, the number of bags in circulation has increased by a staggering 50 per cent.
The imposition of a levy might not be popular, but that should not preclude its use when alternative measures have so obviously failed. Moreover, evidence from overseas suggests that a levy can serve to increase environmental awareness in a positive fashion. One year after the imposition of a levy in Ireland equivalent to 27 Australian cents per bag, use of plastic bags had dropped by 90 per cent, and $A16 million was raised for environmental projects. Australia must consider a similar course.