Five Minutes with: Ryan Collins, Recycling Programs Manager, Planet Ark
We spent five minutes with Planet Ark’s Ryan Collins to ask how the bans on lightweight single-use plastic bags are going, and what we’ve learnt from them so far.
What impact is the plastic bag ban having in the states and territories that have implemented them?
The Australian Capital Territory (ACT) completed reviews of their bag ban in 2012 and 2014 and concluded the ban had been successful in reducing the quantity of plastic bags going to landfill and becoming litter. In the six months prior to the ban taking effect in November 2011, the estimated number of single-use lightweight plastic bags distributed in the ACT by retailers was 26 million. In the corresponding period to November 2013 the number of boutique bags purchased (from respondent retailers) was estimated to be just over 4 million.
Keep Australia Beautiful (KAB) found on average in the ACT a reduction of more than 50 per cent of plastic bags in the litter stream comparing pre-ban levels to 2013 data. A similar comparison of the incidence of heavy boutique bags in the ACT litter stream indicates that while sales of these types of bags have substantially increased in the post-ban period, their presence in the litter stream has remained largely unchanged. This may be a reflection of the increased value placed on these types of bags where there is a financial cost involved.
In a South Australian review in 2012 KAB reported a 45 per cent decrease in lightweight single-use plastic shopping bags in the litter stream since their state ban in 2009, a much bigger improvement compared to other states who did not have a ban.
Reviews carried out in the Northern Territory and Tasmania regarding bag bans have been inconclusive.
What are the benefits?
The bans reduce the number of bags in the litter stream and bags going to landfill and increase household acceptance of alternatives to lightweight single-use plastic bags. Ryan Collins says this means a cleaner Australian environment on land and in our waterways, as well as a reduced impact on marine wildlife.
Initially, consumers may need to change their behaviour when shopping by remembering to bring reusable bags. As time moves on, the behaviour becomes normalised and consumer support for the ban increases.
Some retailers may switch to paper bags, which have their own environmental impacts depending on source of the paper, the use of recycled paper, if it gets recycled or composted, whether it’s FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certified, etc. It takes more water and energy to produce a paper bag. However, littered plastic will persist in the environment for much longer than paper. A full Life Cycle Assessment would be required to compare plastic bag versus paper bag impacts. However, neither are the best choice—reusable bags are, and probably ones that can be washed. Boomerang Bags is a great initiative and Onya make shopping bags from recycled plastic. They also make reusable produce bags.
The SA review reported about half of all retailers said they encountered no issues at all. There was a perception of smaller purchases and less spontaneous purchases due to carrying capacity though this does not appear to have been quantified. There were also OH&S concerns relating to the transmission of disease from dirty bags.
In the ACT there was a high level of retailer compliance with the ban, which contributed to the relatively smooth implementation and high level of community acceptance.
Has it been a success and what have we learnt from the bans?
Generally the bans appear to be successful in reducing litter and bags going to landfill. However, the loophole of the thicker boutique bag may have decreased the impact somewhat but not enough for them to be deemed a failure. It is an issue that could be addressed by the existing and future bag bans.
What should bakery owners know about the bans and how can they best prepare for the bans?
Bakery owners can prepare by starting to encourage their customers to bring their own reusable bag. You can find out more about the Victorian ban and have your say at https://engage.vic.gov.au/waste/plastic-pollution.