Being so accustomed to the convenience and ready supply of plastic bags in supermarkets across Australia, it can be difficult to change our habits and remember to pack reusable shopping bags - especially on an unplanned, afterwork stop-in. While supermarkets like Aldi and some smaller grocers do not automatically provide plastics bags at checkouts (prompting some organization on our part, or opting for the cardboard box) the lack of participation by major supermarkets and convenience stores means our collective contribution to the production and littering of plastics remains significant.
The passing of new legislation in Queensland, Australia this week marks the beginning of a much bigger conversation about our use and reliance on plastics and a push for a change in behavior and thinking.
What are the impacts of plastic bags on the environment?
Since World War II, humans have produced enough plastic to cover the whole world in cling wrap. Almost zero plastics were produced prior to the 1950s but now hundreds of millions of tonnes are produced annually, traveling around the world and sinking to the bottom of the sea.
It has been well established that a large number of sea creatures are not only being suffocated and injured by plastics but are consuming much of it, also. Disturbingly, scientists are no longer questioning whether people are eating plastic in their seafood but determining how much and how bad this could be. While we come into contact and use many types of plastics throughout the day, researchers argue that the most accessed and disposable plastic products, single-use shopping bags and drink bottles, are the most prolific pollutants.
In Queensland alone, nearly one billion single-use, lightweight plastic shopping bags are used annually and 16 million of these end up entering the environment. Not only is our unique and precious marine life threatened, but plastic bags also clog drains and waterways, leading to increased risk of flooding.
What is Queensland doing about it?
Just this week the Queensland Government passed the Waste Reduction and Recycling Amendment Bill 2017. From the 1st of July, 2018 the new legislation will ban all retailers from supplying lightweight plastic shopping bags, and implement a beverage container refund scheme. The bag ban includes shopping bags less than 35 microns in thickness (the standard type of bag you’d find in a supermarket) and also degradable and biodegradable bags, as these can still harm wildlife if littered. The beverage container refund scheme to be delivered alongside the bag ban provides reverse vending machines where shoppers can return drink containers between 150 ml and three litres and receive 10 cents for each bottle. Some containers, including milk, wine, and some juice, will be exempt.
The plastic bag ban will apply to all retailers in Queensland and penalties of up to $6,095 will apply to retailers (including supermarkets, convenience stores, take-away food stores, pharmacies and bottle shops) who don’t comply with the new laws after 1 July, 2018.
Minister for Environment and Heritage Protection and Minister for National Parks and the Great Barrier Reef, Steven Miles, says the initiative received bipartisan support representing the overwhelming community desire for Queensland’s parks, waterways and Great Barrier Reef to be litter free. Boomerang Alliance and Wildlife QLD, both groups who assisted in developing the bill, heralded its passing as representing “the most significant policy on litter reduction in a generation” and ostensibly a win also for school children, who were seen to be the most passionate advocates for reforms.
Adjusting To The Change
While the change is a huge win for the health and beauty of our environment, a little extra forethought may have to go into trips to the shops. Already, almost all supermarkets and grocers sell reusable durable shopping bags, so if you are caught short you won't be left juggling fruit and veg and toilet paper into the carpark, if you can spare an extra dollar or two. To avoid this extra cost each shop, take a look at the huge range of incredibly compact shopping bags such as Onya to keep in your bag, car boot, stroller, clipped to your dog’s leash or car keys. If you’re handy with a sewing machine (or even if you’re not) sewing your own custom bags is incredibly simple and means you can design something durable and suitable for your shop.
While plastic checkout bags will be banned completelynext year, the smaller, thinner fruit barrier bags will still be supplied by retailers. Considering these bags are only really useful for their primary function (containing fruit and veg) they are arguably more likely to be thrown out or end up in the environment. If we’re already adjusting to shopping without plastic bags, why not go a step further and ditch plastic fruit and veg bags, too? An increasing number of small and large eco brands are producing incredibly lightweight, reusable produce bags to solve this exact problem. You can find some here.
Other Ways We Can Reduce Plastics Consumption
As we become more conscious of our everyday consumption of plastic bags, this same awareness extends to every other plastic product we utilize daily and the lifespan of these products. In addition to making the most of the government’s new reverse vending machines for plastic bottles next year, there are also some simple changes you can make which will help to reduce contribution to plastic waste and litter including:
- Avoiding buying plastic packaged products where possible - when shopping at smaller grocers and eco stores you can often find nuts and grains dispensed from larger containers rather than packaged on the shelf
- Using a metal or reusable plastic water bottle
- Bringing your own cup to the cafe for takeaway coffee (saving both cardboard cups and plastic lids from landfill).
- Practice saying "No straw, please” at restaurants and bars
- Avoid plastic plates, cups and cutlery (they’re mostly flimsy and irritating to use anyway!)
- Bring your own container for takeout and leftovers
- Use these nifty waxed fabric food covers to replace cling wrap!
It is hard to deny the massive detrimental impact our collective everyday bad habits have on our health and the environment, particularly when it comes to plastic waste. A little does go a long way and legislative reforms give us a necessary push in the right direction. Have you already #bannedthebag and found the ultimate plastic bag replacement or shopping routine?