Editorial: First in many steps in a bigger war on waste

There can be little doubt that losing the expectation of getting something for free will annoy more than a few people when the major supermarkets decide to ban plastic bags and replace them with heavier bags they can purchase.

Expectation is an odd thing. Bunnings and Aldi have never offered free bags but people have adapted without too much angst. Now the challenge is to really change behaviour. A report from the US on the nine billion tonnes of plastic produced worldwide since 1950 reveals less than a quarter is still be used, meaning seven billion tonnes of it is in landfill or clogging up the waterways and oceans of the world. It is a grim enough picture to demand action.

And if the sense of urgency doesn’t sink in about this wastefulness, in those 70 years more than half has been produced in the last 30 and is used once and tossed away.

So while the bag ban represents a small positive step in aiming to change behaviour, the bigger issue is plastics and wider waste of an accelerating consumer society. Bans imposed in South Australia and the ACT found that while there are decreases of almost 40 per cent in the number of bags reaching landfill, there is a subsequent rise in the sale of heavier plastic bags or bin liners, designed specifically for rubbish which, like purchased shopping bags that aren’t reused, represent heavier and therefore more plastic ending up in waste. Add potentially more toxic colouring and you have the potential for worse environmental outcomes.

Looking at the carelessly discarded element of waste, a recent Keep Australia Beautiful litter report found that the bags represent only 1 per cent of litter. This leaves a vast amount of improvement room for drink containers, fast food packaging and some of the other key culprits that make up the other 99 per cent of litter.

Other academics have also been keen to point out even shopping bags made of alternative materials like paper or canvas bags have environmental impacts and require significant re-use to equal the lightweight plastic bag; four times for paper and 173 times for cotton bags in terms of resource use, energy and greenhouse outcomes.

So while in itself the bag ban has been referred to as a “nudge” policy, helping change behaviour through slight and slow incentives, the real challenge lies in a much wider rethinking of how we use and re-use plastics – no matter how hard that is.