Ban the bag – what you need to know

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From 1 July 2018, Queensland will join the ranks of fellow bag banners South Australia, the Australian Capital Territory, Northern Territory and, Tasmania, in reducing single-use lightweight plastic bags.

The plastic bag is a primary offender in an array of household items from plastic bottles to disposable cutlery, microbeads and clothing particles that have gradually clogged our waterways — killing marine life and damaging our ecosystems since cheap plastic synthesis methods were developed in the early 20th century.

Over the past decade the ban the bag movement has gained traction across Australia, with the first national action undertaken by major retailers in 2002 when they developed a voluntary Code of Practice for the Management of Plastic Bags. Now, 16 years later, state governments have come under pressure to take action on the war on waste.

With Queensland about to take action are you prepared for the upcoming bag ban? And, will it be enough to reverse the negative impact on our environment?

With July just around the corner what do you need to know about ban the bag?

The Queensland Government’s Waste Reduction and Recycling Amendment Bill 2017, will forbid retailers from providing or selling lightweight plastic shopping bags less than 35 microns thick, including bags that are deemed biodegradable or compostable. The ban will apply to all retailers including market-stall holders and the local fish and chip shop. If you are a regular customer to one of the big supermarkets you may have already began to notice the change come into effect - with some retailers not making any further purchases of plastic bags once stock has run out. Vendors who fail to adhere to the new legislation can face up to $6,300 per offence.

What’s the catch? It is not illegal for retailers to provide heavy duty plastic bags (paid or free). While many department stores already provide thicker bags, we can expect to see supermarkets charge customers around 15 cents per bag. 

What about the little bags in the fresh produce aisle? The incoming ban won’t apply to small bags used for unpackaged food such as fruit, vegetables and meat. Park goers are also not to worry, Rover won’t be leaving his doggy ‘doos’ behind. Dog poo bags at your local dog park for the moment are here to stay.

Where does Australia sit on the international plastic bag banning scale?

More than 30 countries have introduced voluntary or regulatory approaches to reduce the use of single-use plastic bags. Historically this trend has predominantly focused on lightweight ‘supermarket’ shopping bags however internationally there has been further movement with Tesco in the UK set to ban non-recyclable packaging by 2019 and France committing to banning plastic plates and cutlery by 2020. After rising community pressure, Brisbane City Council has also committed to banning plastic straws, helium balloons, and single-use water bottles at council-run events.

Is a plastic bag ban enough to make an impact on our environment?

Acting Director of the Centre for Marine Science, Professor Bernard Degnan said the new plastic bag ban was a positive step not just for the well-being of Australia's marine wildlife and ecosystems, but also its people. 

"While we are aware of the devastating impact that plastic has on sea turtles and other marine animals, less appreciated is the fact that these plastics break down in the ocean into micro and nanoparticles that end up in the food web and eventually on our dinner table," he said.

Professor Degnan is best known for the solution he has developed to save the Great Barrier Reef by addressing the threat of the crown-of-thorns starfish, he said that a reduction of waste was a positive move for the reef and wider environments' health. 

"The plastic bag ban is a very good thing and a positive step for our shared future," Professor Degnan said.  

Marine Biologist, Science Instructor, and UQ alumnus, Benjamin Kay, was at the forefront of a single-use plastic bag ban in Santa Monica and noted that there have been many positive impacts as a result of the ban since it was introduced in 2011.

“A manuscript that my students and I will soon submit to peer review highlights that roughly 70 per cent of traditional grocery store patrons used plastic bags before the ban, and that for several years following the ban, 70 per cent of patrons used a combination of reusable and no bag options,” Mr Kay said.

“Our study examined over 65,000 patrons exiting from five grocery stores in Santa Monica.  The data thus strongly support the fact that bans work.”

Santa Monica march on plastic bags
Student march to ban plastic bags in Santa Monica

Mr Kay stated that the state bag bans in California led the way to further conversations about plastic use overall.

“Conversations sparked all over the state about casting out other single-use plastics, including straws, cutlery, water bottles, stir sticks and expanded polystyrene (aka Styrofoam), with some campaigns achieving victory.”

“There also seems a big awakening with community members questioning the efficacy of the industry's sole solution —  recycling — and embracing a 'refuse, reuse, redesign' mantra. The take-make-waste model of convenient disposables is finally being challenged.” 

For Queenslanders, the ban on single-use plastic bags may take some getting used to but it’s clear that the Queensland Government is committed to reducing the state's waste.

So aside from taking your reusable bags to the supermarket, what else can you do to minimise your plastic waste?

Here are Benjamin’s six tips to reduce plastic consumption

  1. Recycle as much as you can but be aware, it is not the end solution. Recovery of plastic bags and films is less than 5%.

  2. Refuse single-use disposable packaging and products as much as possible.  For example, order your next beverage stating, "no straw please."  Vote with your dollar and minimise purchasing foods and other goods packaged in plastics.

  3. Go reusable!  Start with a reusable bag, then water bottle, mug, travel spork, cloth diapers, etc. It will also save you money long term.

  4. Be wary of bioplastics. Many of these 'green plastics' contain polylactide (PLA) and although derived from natural resources, they do not decompose in aquatic environments fast enough to prevent their harmful impact.

  5. Re-educate your community. Education in sustainability is critically needed in schools to help students realise both the scope of the plastic pollution crisis as well as innovate viable solutions.  

  6. Restore trust in the scientific method, which on one hand got us into this mess, but now has the best chance to help us mitigate the plastic problem. 

There is still a long way to go in reducing plastic consumption around the world, but many are hailing the bag ban as a positive step forward. Now, in addition to the introduction of the supermarket bag ban, the Queensland Government aims to introduce a container refund scheme in late 2018 and The Queensland Government's Plastic Pollution Reduction Plan will be introduced in conjunction with existing state and national programs to help fight the war on waste.

Together we can preserve the environment for the next generation.