Several supermarket chains in Australia have initiated a phase-out of single use plastic bags – touted as the 2018 plastic bag ban. While their intentions are unknowable, especially when much of their store still offers plastic wrapping and containers, the ban was welcomed by environmental groups and much of the general public.
However, it has not been unanimously well-received. For some Australians, it seems to have amounted to a near cataclysmic existential threat. Enraged customers vented their frustrations on social media, with many calling for a “boycott” of the supermarket chains.
Others took a more direct response, resorting to physical and verbal violence towards supermarket staff at the unavailability of a free or paid plastic bag.
The heated response from some shoppers has reignited old calls to offer 15c plastic bags to quell the growing tensions. But, if history is a precedent, it is obvious that bags with a small fee will not solve the issue.
The Scandalous 15c Plastic Bag
In the early 2000’s, a revolutionary idea was surmised: supermarkets would offer 15c plastic bags in place of free ones. By solely offering bags with a small fee, it was intended to deter people from using them and drive them to purchase their own reusable bags.
Again, the response was mixed. Many could not see the plan as a green-minded disincentive. They saw it as corporate profiteering.
Still, the basic economic principle was to deter use through a cost-benefit equation. Where the cost of the bag was proportional to a value that would outweigh the benefit gained through the convenience of a plastic bag. This would invigorate people to purchase their own reusable grocery bags and deter others from using a plastic bag for small purchases. And, it worked… kind of.
Plastic bag sales dropped and reusable bag sales soared. But, there was a certain level of contempt within the general public and hostility directed towards supermarket staff charging customers for plastic bags.
Despite this, many retailers solely offered a 15c plastic bag and took the hostilities with a crocodile smile.
Now, we arrive to today. Where people wish to repeat the process and willingly subject themselves to the former contempt felt from having to pay for a plastic bag.
A small fee for plastic bags will not solve the issue. The best option is to progress with the phase-out and come to terms with the change. Just as people did with the 15c charge. People will either adapt or be forced to carry their purchase individually… which would you prefer?
Amongst the rallying calls from plastic bag enthusiasts, a small subset can be heard highlighting genuine implications in the ban. Specifically, two issues:
The First Issue: Increased bin liner sales
Removing access to free plastic bags has the potential to increase bin liner sales. A review of the Plastic Shopping Bags act 2008 found exactly this. Bin liner sales increased from 15 percent to 80 percent in the wake of a plastic bag ban. Consumers were inadvertently being driven to a potentially more unsustainable product.
Many bin liner brands contain artificial fragrance chemicals that act as soil and water pollutants. And, have a greater carbon footprint than some single use plastics.
BUT, not all bin liners present this issue.
Like all products there are alternatives that offer uncompromising environmental sustainability, including 100% biodegradable and compostable bin liners. There are many environmentally sustainable bin liners. For tips and tricks on alternative bin liners visit Frugal and Thriving.
With the responsibility of sustainability being pushed onto the consumer, it is imperative that we are proactive in monitoring what and how we purchase items, so as to avoid more consumer driven issues.
The Second Issue: A half-assed plastic ban
Many of these supermarkets have expressed concern for the environment as a reason for their decision. While this does seem noble, their actions do not reflect this sentiment.
Check-out plastic bags make up a fraction of the total amount of single use plastics pumped out by supermarkets. For example, most places still wrap or place their products in plastic, including fruit and vegetables. With no clarification on this counterintuitive dilemma, it is reasonable to see how this discrepancy is driving much of the publics scepticism on the integrity of the ban.
But, regardless of intent, every incremental lowering of plastic usage, no matter how minimal, contributes to a future with less rubbish and removes them from the build-up of dump sites. Even a 1% reduction in Australia’s plastic pollution would equate to 1000’s of tonnes of trash removed from the country’s fragile terrestrial and marine ecosystems.
With all eyes firmly focused on the plastic bag ban, only time will tell if these companies take the necessary steps to affirm their dedication to phasing out plastic usage or if the responsibility will continue to fall on the consumer.
One thing is certain. This ban has drawn much-needed coverage to the issue of plastic usage and furthered the public discourse. Taking one-step closer to a plastic free future.
Are plastic bags on the way out?