Are you ready to break up with single-use plastic bags?

Last year supermarket giant Woolworths announced they would phase out single-use plastic bags in all Woolworths, Big W and BWS stores, with the bags banned from 20 July 2018. Coles soon followed suit, announcing they will ban all single-use plastic bags in all Coles businesses from 1st July 2018.

This is great news! The ban will only affect New South Wales, Victoria and Western Australia though, as there are already state-wide bans on single-use plastic bags in South Australia, ACT, the Northern Territory and Tasmania, with Queensland to follow from 1 July.

Why do we need a plastic bag ban?

On average, single-use plastic bags (high density polyethylene or HDPE)are used for only 12 minutes before they are discarded. They then take over 1000 years to break down in landfill. Many end up in our oceans, and marine life can mistake them for food. In the water, plastic bags look a lot like a turtles favourite food, jellyfish. When eaten, the plastic can choke the animal, make it feel full so they starve or cause blockages and killing them.

Over time, plastic breaks down into microplastics. These tiny plastic particles can be eaten by animals and accumulate in their bodies. Further, they can release harmful chemicals. Microplastics are even found in the water we drink and the food we eat, especially fish.

waste-1741127_1920.jpg

What are the alternatives?

Coles and Woolworths are selling a range of reusable, heavier plastic bags as alternatives to single-use bags. These can include:

  • Polyethylene terephthalate or PET bags
    • 'thicker' plastic bags designed to be used multiple times
  • Polypropylene or PP bags
    • otherwise known as 'green' or 'enviro' bags designed to be used multiple times
  • Paper bags
    • typically single use
  • Compostable bags
    • designed to be discarded in home compost or picked up in kerbside collection in some suburbs

All of these sound great in theory, but are they really environmentally friendly and sustainable?

Sustainability

Research has shown that the benefits of each type of reusable bag is linked to the number of times the bag is re-used and their level of impact on the environment is dependent on the environmental impact being considered. For example, some require higher water use in their production, where others use more fossil fuels. Some are more easily recycled at the end of their life, where others need special recycling considerations. Some can be used many more times than others.

Here we provide a breakdown of the pro's and con's of these common alternatives.

PET bags

Generally speaking, PET bags are considered to be more environmentally friendly than single-use HDPE bags; however, they need to be reused 104 times. Personally, I think it is unrealistic that these bags would survive that many uses. Despite being thicker plastic than single-use HDPE bags, the plastic is still soft, so tears and holes are likely.

As a bonus though, these bags can be recycled in soft-plastic recycling schemes like REDcycle at the end of their life. Most Coles and Woolworths have implemented soft plastics recycling. However you will have to take them to a collection point as soft plastic recycling isn't yet available in kerbside collection.

PP or 'green/enviro' bags

You could be forgiven for thinking they're called green bags for their environmentally-friendliness. But in reality, the term "green bag" was coined from their green colour when they were first released. It's important to remember that these bags are still made from plastic. This makes the bags strong so they can be used over an over. It's recommended that these bags are used 104 times before being discarded (1 shop/week for 2 years). If used less than 52 times their environmental impact is greater than that of the single use plastic (HDPE) bags they're designed to replace.

It is also important to keep hygiene in mind. As these bags need to be re-used for up to 2 years, they should be washed regularly to ensure no nasties transfer to your fresh produce.

Generally speaking, PP bags are better than PET bags, provided they are used the full 104 times. At the end of their life PET bags can also be recycled through soft plastic recycling schemes like REDcycle.

Paper bags

Can't go wrong with paper, right? Wrong! Paper bags are actually considered the worst alternative for a number of reasons. Their potential for re-use is low, their breakdown in landfill releases carbon dioxide and methane release, and the production process requires a lot of land and water, produces a tonne of solid waste, relies heavily on fossil fuels and contributes to global warming.

The one benefit though is that they are easily recycled through kerbside collection making them the most recyclable alternative. You can even compost the paper yourself through home composting.

Compostable 'plastic' bags

These bags are typically made from 50% maize starch and 50% polycaprolactone (PCL). They are designed to biodegrade (into water and oxygen) through composting. They can be composted in home composting, otherwise some suburbs allow them to be discarded into organic waste bins for kerbside collection, although this is not widespread.

Unfortunately, these bags are typically single-use and they are non-recyclable. Further, if the bags are not disposed of correctly, like discarded into landfill for example, they will likely not biodegrade or breakdown completely. Sadly, it is estimated that about 70% of these bags are disposed of into landfill.

Recycled bags

If you have some old clothes lying around at home that are no good for donating, you can actually up-cycle them into some shopping bags.

Alternatively, there are a number of companies, like Biome and Flora and Fauna, which sell reusable shopping bag alternatives, often made from recycled plastic.

So what's the best solution?

Generally speaking, plastic-free alternatives are always best but as I mentioned above, plastic-free alternatives are not always as green as they seem (i.e. paper bags). 

It also comes down to your personal habits. If you love DIY, why not try making your own from sustainable fabrics. Only go for re-useable plastic if you know you will use them enough times and that you will recycle them at the end of their life in soft-plastic recycling bins.

The key to being environmentally conscious is to avoid swapping one problem for another, and educating yourself to make the most ethical and environmental decision. I hope this guide helps you to decide on the best alternative that suits your needs.

 

Joni Pini-Fitzsimmons