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Since the plastic shopping bag was introduced in 1957, it has becomes an essential part of life today. In addition to common things like smart phones, cars or fast food, plastic shopping bags are very familiar and used by everyone in Australia. Almost all merchandises from foodstuffs and take – away food, drink to clothing and hardware use plastic shopping bags to carry.
It is estimated that people all over the world use from 500 billion to 1 trillion plastic every year (Clapp & Swanston 2009). This is equivalent to 2.7 billion every day, or 1.9 million every minute. And approximately 6.9 billion plastic bags are used by Australian consumers every year.
Plastic shopping bags are provided by most retailers in Australia for the purpose of helping consumers to hold their products they buy. While the main intention of consumers is using these plastic shopping bags is to carry goods from the stores to the car and into their home , they are often re-used by consumers for other purposes, such as lining household rubbish bins. The helpfulness of plastic shopping bags for their original purpose is rarely controversial. However, these bags create unsightly rubbish, use limited resources, are one of the sources of waste from landfill, take many years to disintegrate, cause harm to animals, and become a symbol of a ‘throwaway’ society.
The purpose of this research paper is to analysis existing policies about plastic shopping bag restriction in Australia.
2. Background and Literature review
According to Hyder Consulting (2008), there are two major types of plastic shopping bags which are used in Australia:
‘Singlet’ bags, or lightweight plastic bags, made of high density polyethylene (HDPE) – used mostly in supermarkets, fresh produce, convenience stores and take-away food outlets, and other non-branded applications.
‘Boutique’ bags made of low density polyethylene (LDPE) – usually branded and used by stores selling higher value goods such as department stores, clothing and shoe outlets.
Over the past decade, attention of politics has concentrated on reducing the use of plastic shopping bags for a variety of reasons. They are harmful to animals and the environment and reduce the attractiveness of urban, rural and natural scenery. Plastic bags and debris of bags can stay in the environment for hundreds of years. Plastic bags are also an unnecessary consumable symbol. There are a number of suggestions proposed to reduce or stop the use of plastic bags, including plastic bags, introducing levy a tax on manufacture of plastic bags and using alternatives, with strengths and weaknesses. For example, according to Hyder Consulting (2008), recent alternative replacement life cycles for plastic bags, such as the current generation of decomposers, have found a number of alternatives that have a greater impact on environment in comparison with lightweight plastic bags.
There are some reasons why it has been suggested that plastic shopping bags should be reduced. Halweil (2004) indicated that man people consider plastic shopping bags as a waste of natural resources because they are made from non-renewable resources, such as crude oil, natural gas and other petro chemical derivatives, are normally unnecessary. And Williams (2004) argued that in a lot of situations, many people use plastic shopping bags only one time. In addtion, according to Hyder Consulting (2008), there is a key reason for the depreciation of plastic shopping bags. It is that millions of them are not thrown away properly and they become unsightly litter which can live long on land or in the water for hundreds of years. While nearly 30-40 million plastic shopping bags were littered in 2007, the Keep Australia Beautiful National Litter Index 2006/2007 showed that HDPE plastic bags accounted for only 1.3% of the litter stream by item (excluding cigarette butts) and 0.18% of the litter stream by volume (excluding cigarette butts). It was found that “beaches had the most plastic bags, of the beaches surveyed by keep Australia Beautiful, 2.9 plastic bags were found per 1,000 square metres” (Hyder Consulting 2008, p. 22).
Another reason for the need to reduce plastic shopping bags is that they are dangerous to wildlife. Jefic, Sheavly and Adler (2009) pointed out that plastic shopping bags can do harm or kill flora and fauna that eat, or become entangled in them. Williams (2004) gave an example that turtles died due to ingesting plastic bags, most likely the plastic bags look like jellyfish floating in the water. Another example is that a crocodile which was caught at Magnetic Island in Queensland in October 2008 died because of eating plastic bags, which were stuck in its stomach, meaning it could not digest its food. Its necropsy revealed “25 plastic shopping abd garbage bags, a plastic wine cooler bag and a rubber float in its stomach” (Queensland Government 2008). In addtion, Sustainability Victoria (2010) illustrated plastic shopping bags as “a short term convenience with long term impacts”. In spite of the fact that plastic shopping bags are made to be “single use”, Lapidos (2007) considered that plastic shopping bags have a life expectancy of up to 1,000 years. Moreover, many people think that plastic shopping bags are symbolic of wasteful society. The Hon Jane Davidson AM, the Welsh Environment Minister (2009) described plastic shopping bags as “an iconic symbol of the throw-away society we now seem to live in”. Wilton (cited in Williams 2004), a waste campaigner for Friends of the Earth in London, also said “plastic carrier bags are symbolic of a society in which we use things without thinking and then throw them away”. And according to Caroline Williams in New Scientist in 2004, the plastic bag industry claimed that it is being targeted by environmentalists because plastic bags are “ an easy and emotive target that panders to our guilt about general environmental irresponsibility”.
3. Problem definition
People living in Australia use approximately 6.9 billion new plastic shopping bags each year. In other words, each person use one bag in a day. The problems of plastic shopping bags are determined by two factors that are almost certainly equally important. First of all, there are concerns about the environmental impacts of plastic shopping bags, especially impacts on the consumption of resources and litter.
Lewis et al. (2002) stated that the manufacture of 6.9 billion plastic shopping bags utilizes approximately 36850 tonnes of plastic, or 2% of total plastics produced in Australia each year. This is a slight percentage of the entire amount of packaging used in Australia every year, which is estimated to be around 3 million tonnes 1 . There is an estimation that plastic shopping bags account for 2.02% of all items in the litter stream. However, they pose actual ecological impacts and threats and as such need to be effectively addressed together with other components of the litter stream.
The second factor that are necessary to be aware of in the argument about plastic shopping bags is symbolic value. The plastics and packaging industries are under extreme pressure in the 1970s and 1980s because ‘they had become a politically incorrect symbol of the threat to the environment’ (Byars 1995). A cultural analysis of plastics in the United States indicated that by definition the plastics industry was the whole thing which activists in ecology wanted to delete from the American experience. Since the early twentieth century, people who promote the industrial chemistry and synthetic materials had bragged of going beyond age-old limits of provisional materials by spreading the control of science over nature. During the 1920s, predictions of a developing flow of low-cost man-made goods had suggested material plenty as the foundation for a utopian social equality. By the final third of the century that transcendency threatened to drain natural resources and contaminate the society that supported it by creating a stream of irretrievable, unacceptable materials – rubbish, society’s excrement. (Meikle 1995). To some extent the concerns about the large number of plastic shopping bags, which are used by people living in Australia, and their high level of visibility in domestic waste and litter, are characteristic of much wider concerns about plastics and packaging.
This does not mean that concerns about plastic shopping bags are any less crucial or demanding from a policy viewpoint. However, it has the meaning that the growth of policy solutions needs to consider the issues of society and culture as well as the facts of science about impacts on the environment. Policy measures to decrease utilization (or impacts) of shopping bags are to be expected to be well received in the community. Abundant measures to solve the plastic bag problem have been increased in recent times. These measures are various and include factors, such as legislated measures like levies and bans; voluntary measures such as retailer originated actions and developed Code of Practice; raised consumer education; and expanded recovery and recycling.
4. Existing Policies
The policy “Phase-out of lightweight plastic bags in Australia” is being followed at local and state/territory level rather than nationally. In this policy, plastic bag bans are implemented or undecided in all states and territories except New South Wales. Cormack (2016) noted that environmental groups have expressed their interest that Australia was falling behind other countries in the “phase-out of lightweight plastic bags”, including Botswana, Somalia and Tanzania. The author also indicated that of the 5 billion plastic bags consumed every year by Australians, 150 million finished as litter.
According to Mail & Guardian in 2003, the Tasmanian town of Coles Bay was the first location in Australia to ban plastic bags. Feneley (2008) stated that even though the Rudd Government’s goal of a national plastic bag ban by year’s end was publicized by the then-Environment Minister Peter Garrett, he later stop initiative because of cost of living concerns and disagreement about the policy among state and territory governments. This is the reason why states and territories carried out their own approaches.
The initiation of the “Zero Waste” program in South Australia led to the first statewide lightweight bag ban being, which was introduced in October 2008. It is estimated that this move has saved 400 million bags every year (Zero Waste South Australia 2011). Preiss (2017) pointed out that the most recent jurisdiction to pronounce a ban on plastic bags is Victoria, to commence on a date to be pulicized in early 2018.
On 1 November 2011, following a transition period of four months, plastic bags were prohibited in the Australian Capital Territory under the Plastic Shopping Bags Ban Act 2010. The provisions of the Act mirror the South Australia legislation. The Act was carried out in combination with a complete community and retailer engagement and campaign of education.
On 16 April 2013, Getting Full Value: The Victorian Waste and Resource Recovery Policy was released by the Victorian Government. The policy commits the Government to work under the National Waste Policy and Australian Packaging Covenant to control packaging waste, which contains lightweight plastic bags.
In July 2017, Coles and Woolworths, which are two largest supermarkets in the country, announced that from July 2018 they will voluntarily take away free lightweight plastic bags from their stores and provide bags, which can be reuseable instead. These bags were originally sold at 15 cents in both Coles and Woolworths.
5. Evaluation existing policies
The “phase-out of lightweight plastic bags in Australia” can be seen as an effective and easy way of reducing the amount of plastic entering the land and the marine environment. Keep Australia Beautiful’s national report for 2016-2017 showed a fall in plastic bag litter after plastic bags came into effect. Besides, plastic bags are offen mistaken for food by marine animals. As Williams (2004) mentioned that turtles died beause of eating plastic bags. Therefore, the plastic shopping bags ban can help to decrease negative impacts on animals. Moreover, bcecause plastic bags take hundreds of years to decompose, banning plastic shopping bags will help to protect the environment.
One aspect that needs to be addressed when banning plastic shopping bags is relevance. Plastic shopping bag ban can be useful in short term. Professor Sami Kara from the University of New South Wales said that it is better in the long term if people do not use plastic bags at all. However, it is very difficult to stop everyone from using plastic shopping bags. Because people are now accustomed to using plastic shopping bags, it will be a big challenge to change that long-term behaviour of consumers. Therefore, banning plastic shopping bags are relevant in the short term.
There are some alternatives to plastic bags. However, these can lead to some side-effects. Chung (2017) indicated that a side-effect of the plastic bag ban noticed in South Australia was the growth in the number of bin liners, which have a greater impact on the environment than plastic bags because they can not break down well in modern landfills. The author also stated that alternatives, which are environmentally friendly recommended instead of bin liners are composting food scraps and using free community newspapers as liners instead.
Adler (2016) pointed out that paper bags were not as environmentally friendly as plastic bags because of a higher carbon footprint. In the same way, bags made by cotton were inappropriate due to the high level using of the pesticides and high volume of water, which are necessary to produce them. The “greenest” option was to consume recycled plastic bags.
Concern has been expressed about potentially unintentional adverse health outcomes related to the plastic bag ban rollout because of the insufficient care by consumers in keeping alternative shopping bags in a clean and healthy condition. It is indicated that experiences of oversea in locations such as San Francisco, where raise sickness and even deaths were reported in the consequences of the same bans to those in Australian states, recommend that this is a real concern (Knaus 2013).
The Environment Protection and Heritage Council indicated that plastic shopping bags “are popular with consumers and retailers because they provide a convenient, highly functional, lightweight, strong, cheap, hygienic way to transport food and other products”. These comment means that several plastic shopping bags are reused for many other purposes, such as storing sweaty gym gear, packing shoes, collecting dog poo and holding rubbish.
In spite of these usefulness of plastic shopping bags, they have various negative effects. Therefore, there are polices provided to ban plastic shopping bags. The polices of banning plastic shopping bags were provided in South Australia, Victoria, the Australian Capital Territory and the two largest supermarkets in Australia applied this policy to reduce the number of plastic shopping bags. These policies bring some effectiveness, positive impacts and relevance in the short term. However, in consideration of the long term, banning plastic shopping bags is not appropriate. And the policies of plastic bags ban result in alternatives, which have some side-effects.
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- Byars, M. (Ed) (1995), Mutant Materials in Contemporary Design, The museum of Modern Art, New York.
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- Hyder Consulting 2008, Plastic Retail Carry Bag Use, 2006 and 2007 Consumption, pp. 22-27.
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- Zero Waste South Australia 2011, Plastic Bag ban, 28 February, Zero Waste South Austrlia, viewed 2 July 2012.
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