Plastic bags have become such a convenient item in our lives that imagining life without them is a little bit confronting. After all what will we use to line the rubbish bin with if we don’t have supermarket plastic bags to reuse?
Single use plastic bags are causing such significant issues to our environment that what we line our bin with is the least of our worries. There are plenty of alternative options but first lets explore the reasons why we ‘bag’ the bag.
Australia uses 5 billion plastic bags per year and it has been found that only 3% of these are recycled. There are two types of plastic bag that makes up this 5 billion; the thicker Low Density Polyethylene (LDPE) bag that is used in retail department stores and the High Density Polyethylene (HDPE) which is the thinner bag we are familiar with that are used in supermarkets. The HDPE bag is the only plastic bag that can be recycled.
On average, we use a single use plastic bag for 12 minutes then it takes around 1000 years for the bag to decompose. That’s astounding when you think every piece of plastic ever made still exists on the planet. Even most biodegradable bags are made from plastic which means they are having more of a detrimental impact on the environment as they break down into smaller pieces, making it easier for animals to consume.
So the fundamental issues single use plastic bags are causing are:
1. Threats to our eco-systems (yes that includes us too!)
With the mammoth quantities of plastic bags ending up as litter each year means eventually they end up in our oceans. This impacts our marine life through either being tangled up in them or by consuming the smaller particles. These plastics are now in our food chain and we are yet to see what health implications this will have on us all. Check out the Marine Conservations infographic that shows how plastics are forever and how they impact our marine life and then us.
They also impact our land animals. Check out what a NSW farmer found on his property.
2. Landfill Space
Those plastic bags that do end up in the waste system are adding to the problem of filling our limited landfill space. Even those that we use for our bin liners are adding to the mounting problem.
3. Greenhouse Gases
It takes coal, oil and gas to make plastic bags which generates greenhouse gas emissions in the process. With the current low prices for barrels of oil, production of plastics could potentially be higher. Greenhouse gases don’t end there with plastic bags because once they end up in landfill, they continue emitting for a very long time.
4. Plastic Bags are not Free
We think that plastic bags are free but they are costing us financially as well as environmentally. Financially the bag costs us when shopping as the retailer providing them includes the cost of them in the item purchased. Apparently it costs government, businesses and community groups approximately $4million per annum to clean up the litter caused by plastic bags. So this cost will be recovered through our rates and the services and goods we purchase.
We have become so use to the convenience of the plastic bag that it does take some effort to start thinking about what the alternatives are. But there are plenty and there a number of Victorian towns that have led the way to become plastic bag free. These include Angelsea, Torquay Warburton and Creswick, who is part of our own Hepburn Shire. They are currently transitioning to become plastic bag free by the end of 2016. Timboon has been ahead of its time and has been plastic bag free since 2004.
These towns have been successful at becoming plastic bag free through community-led action. We can learn a thing or two from their experience to become plastic bag free townships too. The key ways to do this is by:
Saying ‘no’ to the offer of a plastic bag next time you shop is a fantastic start to fixing the problem. Start taking your own stash of reusable bags with you when you do the grocery shop. Eventually it will become second nature to do that. Torquay has had great success with Boomerang Bags. These are reusable bags that are available at stores that you can borrow and return if you forgot yours.
Anglesea’s IGA make their boxes available which helps them to manage their waste and offers consumers an easy alternative to plastic bags. Other tips from plastic bag free towns are having reminder signs at the supermarket and retailers placing signs in their windows saying they are plastic bag free offering consumers an alternative or preparing them to bring their own bag.
Shopping in bulk food stores that encourage you to bring your own containers is another great option that makes refusing easy.
Changing our habits takes time. So we need to ‘wean’ ourselves from the habit of using plastic bags by starting to reduce the amount we use when grocery shopping by filling bags to their capacity and not bagging products with handles.
Lining the rubbish bin with an alternative such as newspaper or not lining it at all is another great source of reduction. Start composting food waste so it does not need to go into the landfill bin helps to keep the bin clean not requiring lining. Or simply hose it out after its been emptied.
If you do have a cupboard full of plastic bags start reusing them for other purposes such as freezer bags or take them shopping. For example, next time you buy bread at the bakery, ask for it in a paper bag and transfer it to a plastic bag when you get home.
As mentioned earlier, the thinner supermarket plastic bag (HDPE) can be recycled but only 3% per annum tend to be. Take the hoarded bags in the cupboard back to the supermarket and place them in the recycling bin made available. The thicker plastic bags that you get in departments stores (LDPE) can’t be recycled so avoid them all together.
There are lots of alternatives to the plastic bag that were used as normal practice back in our grandparents day. Habits can change as we all take personal responsibility to fix this significant issue not just here in Victoria but in the world. All the small steps we take individually will have an enormous impact to keeping our environment pristine and our bodies healthy.
Until next time….