BIG BAG BAN: The Unintended Consequences of Banning Single-Use Plastic Bags

Most Australians generally agree: single-use plastic bags are harmful for the natural environment and we should steer clear of them as much as possible. If you asked anybody going shopping, a consumer would probably tell you they’d opt for an environmentally friendly alternative if given the choice.

single-use plastic ban
Bin liners crushed in garbage trucks in seconds

Plastic shopping bags are topping the list of banned single-use plastic items across the globe. As of July 2018, 127 countries have adopted some form of legislation to regulate plastic bags. According to UNEP, the most common form of plastic bags regulation is the restriction on free retail distribution - that’s also what most of the Australian states and territories (with NSW being the only exception - for now) chose to do as a way to fight pollution caused by single-use plastic shopping bags. But such form of regulation leaves many loopholes in the system as it doesn’t control single-use plastic bags manufacturing, distribution, use, trade and post-use disposal.


In addition, more and more data emerge proving that bans on lightweight single-use plastic shopping bags do more harm than good. Many environmental activists, researchers and NGOs are pointing out at unintended consequences of such bans, including both increases in sales of other single-use plastic bags and thicker plastic shopping bags.


The increase in sales of other single-use plastic bags.


By introducing a ban on single-use plastic shopping bags, consumers will simply be motivated to buy other single-use plastic bags. This has included, for example, single-use plastic garbage bags. While consumers were using their lightweight bags as bin liners (or to pick up dog faeces), that ability came to a swift end when major shopping outlets like Coles and Woolworths implemented national policies to stop handing out lightweight shopping bags to their customers. An unfortunate consequence, however, has been a surge in sales for regular single-use garbage bags.

single-use plastic bag ban
With no more 'free' single-use shopping bags, bin liner sales fill the gap

Sydney University economist Rebecca Taylor, in her 2019 study published in the Journal of Environmental Economics and Management, closely analysed data from California retailers (where plastic shopping bags were prohibited in 2016). She found that, even though around 40 million pounds of plastic bags had been eliminated, the benefits were ultimately offset by a skyrocketing increase of 12 million pounds of garbage bag purchases. Specifically, small garbage bag sales increased by 120%, medium sales increased by 64% and tall garbage bag sales increased by 6%.


This is a critical finding because many single-use garbage bags are much thicker than banned single-use plastic shopping bags. And unfortunately, consumers are not just opting to buy regular garbage bags. They’re choosing to buy a whole range of thicker plastic bags – including the well-known thick bags that’s now become synonymous with everyday shopping.


The increase in sales of thicker plastic shopping bags.


We see them in Coles, Woolworths and Big W every time we go shopping. As we stated above, most of Australia’s major supermarkets ceased giving out to their customers single-use plastic bags for their shopping. This happened around mid-2018. Governments are also now starting to implement state-by-state bans on plastic bags. Queensland, Western Australia and Victoria have already introduced bans on all lightweight plastic shopping bags with a thickness of up to 35 microns. These bans apply to not only regular plastic bags, but also biodegradable bags (which contrary to popular myth, are still harmful to the environment). New South Wales is also set to ban lightweight shopping bags by 2022.

single-use plastic bag ban
Have you used these bags as bin liners?

Thicker plastic shopping bags are typically marketed as reusable and as an effective environmentally friendly alternative to single-use plastic bags. But according to Geoffrey Binder, environmental sustainability expert at the University of Melbourne, the reality is much different. By getting rid of single-use bags, everyday consumers are simply buying other, thicker reusable bags which could actually worsen the problem. Regular shoppers are purchasing thicker bag after thicker bag, and stockpiling them in their kitchen simply because they forget to take them out the next time they go shopping. It’s now a common Australian sight to see stacks of thick Coles and Woolies plastic bags shoved underneath the sink in ever-increasing piles.


A ban on lightweight shopping bags, therefore, does not go far enough. What is needed, according to UK-based not-for-profit organisation Planet Patrol, is a ban on all plastic bags, regardless of their thickness.


Planet Patrol and the Big Bag Ban


In 2015, the UK Government introduced a 5p plastic bag charge in order to curb the use of single use plastic bags. The charge has now increased from 5p to 10pc, with the government announcing that, because of the charge, sales of single use bags have fallen by 95%. But Planet Patrol says their claims are completely misleading as the reported data don’t include the sales figures for thicker plastic shopping bags - “bags for life”. According to recent available annual reports, 2.1 billion plastic shopping bags were STILL sold by the UK retailers in 2019 - that’s around 6 million plastic bags every single day! Over a half from this horrendous number (1.58 billion!) were thicker plastic “bags for life”.

Big bag ban
Lizzie Carr, aka Lizzie Outside, Founder of Planet Patrol

‘Bags for life’: while those are not banned the plastic pollution problem is here to stay


Bags for life’ are shopping bags that are much thicker than banned lightweight plastic shopping bags. Being marketed in the UK as a practical and environmentally friendly alternative to ordinary, and thinner, plastic bags, in reality they are making the plastic problem far worse. According to one of the recent reports by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) and Greenpeace “bags for life” are transforming into ‘bags for a week’ as houses in the UK buy on average about 54 of them every year. “Bags for life” contain around three times as much plastic as single-use plastic bags, with a carbon footprint around four times higher. So, the 1.58 billion ‘bags for life’ issued in the UK in 2020 used the same amount of plastic as approximately 4.7 billion single-use bags.


A call for transparency


In April 2021, Planet Patrol sent an open letter to George Eustice, the UK’s Environmental Secretary, calling to start the process for a complete ban on all plastic bags. They’re also calling for more transparency in the reporting of number of plastic bags sold in the UK, taking into account both single use bags and the ‘bags for life’ as at the moment there is no regulatory requirement for the UK retailers to report on sales of “bags for life”. According to Planet Patrol, both retailers and the government are benefiting from not reporting on actual numbers of all plastic bags sold as retailers are able to generate massive amounts of revenue coming from “bags for life” sales and the government is benefiting from increased value-added tax (VAT).


To put an end to such injustice Planet Patrol created a new campaign - the “Big Bag Ban” where anyone who supports an outright ban on all plastic bags and more transparency from retailers can sign The Big Bag Ban petition.


Australian ‘bags for life’: the future of thick plastic bags?


Similarly to the UK, here in Australia we also don't have any transparency regarding the sale figures of thick plastic bags you see in Coles and Woolworths.

single-use plastic bag ban
Are they really, "better"?

Part of an industry that is estimated to generate over 56 gigatons of carbon over the next 30 years (and growing CO2 emissions by over 2.75 billion tonnes a year), plastic trash bags have been responsible for the significant ecological disaster we’re currently experiencing. “Bags for life” and single-use garbage bags create the same environmental problem: they’re thicker plastic bags that take longer to break down, require more plastic to make and are just as easily disposed by the community having irreversible impacts on the natural world (much like your ordinary thin shopping bag). At the end of the day, no matter what plastic bag you are using - single-use plastic shopping bag, “bag for life” or a single-use plastic bin liner: if it’s made out of virgin plastic and is used only once, it equally pollutes the environment and drives climate change further.


An effective solution, rather, is a true reusable alternative to single-use plastic bags. By creating real change in consumer behaviour, switching to a reusable alternative will slow down and potentially even stop plastics from entering into our natural ecosystems, save wildlife habitats from destruction and change the ‘throwaway culture’ that has become so prevalent in our modern society.

At TOMBag, we’re offering the real deal and the only genuine alternative to single-use garbage bags. As a reusable and truly circular solution for waste disposal, TOMbag is a reusable trash bag you buy once and can use over and over again.