Single-use plastic bags are among the top plastic pollutants in the world. They pose a threat not only to the environment and wildlife, but also to our own health. It is estimated that on a global scale we use up to 5 trillion disposable plastic bags per year. That number translates into 10 million plastic bags per minute!
Acknowledging the gigantic size of the problem policy makers and governments all over the world are introducing bans and levies to curb waste related to single-use plastic. At present, there are over 70 countries using varying degrees of enforcement to phase it out - mainly banning plastic bags or Styrofoam typically used for take-away packaging.
Australia is currently lagging behind the rest of the world having no nationwide ban on single-use plastic bags. Although the bags have already been banned in Western and South Australia, Queensland, ACT, Tasmania, NT and recently in Victoria, NSW has rejected a proposal to ban it.
Is banning plastic bags a good idea?
It is too early to draw robust conclusions on the impacts bans have on the environment since some countries have started with phasing out plastic bags just recently, we are thus lacking the data on the topic. Other countries report contradictory results where some are finding bans as highly effective, while others see little to no change.
As per Australian major retailers the ban seems to be working well. Since they removed the light weight single-use plastic carry bags from all of their stores across the country, around 5 billion of bags were spared from going to the landfill. But do these numbers allow us to get the whole picture?
According to the environmental sustainability experts the correct evaluation of recently introduced bans would be possible only if we have data on sales of all other plastic bags since the ban introduction. The problem is that this information is not publicly available. Having no transparency in this question we can only suspect that light-weight carry bags ban has led to the increase in sales of reusable plastic bags that retailers are offering for a small price to their shoppers, but also has driven sales of plastic garbage bags. If previously many consumers were reusing free light-weight plastic bags as their bin liners or to pick up dog poop, these days they would use for that purpose either reusable grocery plastic bags or single-use plastic garbage bags they had to pay for.
The University of Sydney economist Rebecca Taylor’s recent study only confirms such change of consumer behaviour as a direct consequence of plastic bags ban. Taylor has analysed the sales data from the retailers in California where the plastic shopping bags were banned in late 2016. Part of Taylor’s study was also an observation where she and her colleagues spent weekends in grocery stores across California tallying the types of bags people carried out. The researcher concluded that although about 40 million pounds of plastic carryout bags were eliminated by the state-wide ban, it was offset by a 12 million pound increase in garbage bag purchases - with small, medium, and tall garbage bag sales increasing by 120%, 64%, and 6%, respectively.
If Australia is currently experiencing similar unintended consequences of the plastic bags ban, we can hypothesise that the situation with single-use plastic bags pollution hasn’t really changed and maybe became even worse than before. The problem with reusable plastic bags is that they are made of a much thicker and denser plastic that would take much longer time to degrade if compared with their light-weight plastic predecessors. In addition to that, the bags that are meant to be reusable are believed not to be reused by many. It is thus likely, that the only difference is that we are now paying for something that is directly related to climate change, while previously we got it for free.
As the best reduction strategy for single-use plastic bags, The United Nations sees promotion and adoption of reusable bags where the final choice lies with the consumer. It has been proven that such strategy has changed consumer behaviour and helped to reduce the use of conventional plastic bags in many regions. So why don’t we all ditch and switch?