On Banning Plastic Bags

As more and more supermarket chains and other retailers pull plastic bags from their stores, presumably to do something for the environment, it is worth looking at the issue in a bit more detail. And the real question that must be asked here is this: Is this move in fact better or worse for the environment?

While stores are now pulling bags, the debate is not at all new. Ten years ago I also wrote on the plastic bag issue. The Labor Party Environment Minister at the time, rocker Peter Garrett, was gung ho on such a ban. I looked at the dodgy science back then, and finished with a quote from Andrew Bolt:

“Fact: People love plastic bags too much to give them up even if made to pay. Ask Ireland, which imposed a levy on bags only to find more than ever were being used, with only a small cut in the number turning up as litter. And the Productivity Commission warned a levy or ban wouldn’t work any better here: ‘A cost-benefit study commissioned by the governments shows that the benefits of a phase out or a per-unit charge would be significantly outweighed by the costs.’ It concluded: ‘A more cost-effective approach would be to target littering directly.’ How about that? Just hit the naughty litterer, not the struggling shopper, the food-wrapping clean fiend and the civic pooper-scooper.”

By all means let’s have some concern for the environment. But let that concern be level-headed and evidence-based. We don’t need any more panic-mongering and guilt-tripping by wealthy bureaucrats, politicians and rock stars.

Nothing has changed during the past decade. More fear-mongering, more fake-science, and more bogus moves that will not really help the environment, but will harm many folks – the poor especially. As is so often the case, most of our politicians and media commentators have done little homework in these areas.

They prefer mouthing feel-good platitudes and resorting to mushy moralising instead of looking at the actual facts. And the facts are NOT what the activists want us to believe. Let me run with some recent articles on this, beginning with a piece by Canadian writer Matthew Lau.

He begins by looking at a similar ban in Montreal to the ones Woolworths and Coles will soon introduce in a number of Australian states. He then writes:

The ill-conceived ban is a policy that cannot possibly pass a cost-benefit analysis, not least because politicians have no way of measuring the cost of the regulation — that is, the amount of inconvenience that the ban forces consumers and businesses to suffer. Meanwhile, there is pretty strong evidence that the benefits of the regulation (supposedly a cleaner environment) are either zero or negative.

In the first place, one of the reasons plastic bags are so popular is because of all the ways they make the environment cleaner and less hazardous to humans. Dog walkers use plastic bags to clean the environment of pet waste. People use plastic bags to carry clothes and books and everything else from place to place in order to keep their belongings clean from the dirt on the ground.

Plastic grocery bags are also an excellent way to protect people from bacteria in the environment, because they are disposable. By contrast, reusable grocery bags can be “a serious threat to public health,” according to Charles Gerba, a University of Arizona microbiologist and co-author of a study on grocery bags. He noted that health risks of reusable bags came “especially from coliform bacteria including E. coli, which were detected in half of the bags sampled.”

Another study by professors at the University of Pennsylvania and George Mason University examined the connection between San Francisco’s plastic bag ban and bacteria-related illnesses. They concluded that “both deaths and ER visits spiked as soon as the ban went into effect. Relative to other counties, deaths in San Francisco increase by almost 50 per cent, and ER visits increase by a comparable amount. Subsequent bans by other cities in California appear to be associated with similar effects.”

Far from causing environmental harm, the main use of plastic bags is to make the environment cleaner for humans, such as by keeping bacteria out of groceries. Nevertheless, bag ban advocates insist that the bags are indeed environmentally harmful, and must be outlawed to fight climate change.

His entire piece is a must read, but let me move on to some words by Benedict Brook. He too provides plenty of facts and figures as he dispels numerous green myths along the way. For example, he looks at some of the alternatives:

But research on how we use carrier bags, some commissioned by Woolworths itself, has shown that reducing their environmental impact could be more problematic than many of us assume. A 2009 report produced for Woolworths by researchers at RMIT calculated the environmental impact of single use carrier bags versus their reusable counterparts. The classic supermarket bag, the type being banned, is made from high density polyethylene (HDPE). Compared to other bags it’s not that great environmentally — but it certainly doesn’t have the worst impact.

On measures such as its contribution to global warming and water usage, it actually scores well. In landfill they compress and so take up very little space. But it falls down on energy consumption and the effect on marine life. Other research has said light density polyethylene (LDPE) bags, the thicker type available for a few cents at the supermarket, are generally worse than their thinner counterparts….

The worst bags are actually paper bags. Sure, they break down after use but the energy consumption and materials used to produce them are off the scale. Taking all this into account, the report was able to work out how many times you needed to use an alternative to a single use plastic bag for it to have a lesser impact on the environment.

“The benefits of a reusable bag are highly sensitive to the number of times each bag is used during its life,” said the report. “For example, if a reusable PP green bag is only used 52 times (weekly for a year) instead of the assumed 104 times (weekly for two years) then its impact on global warming is higher than the impact of each of the single-use bags except the paper bag.”

Other reports confirm plastic bag replacements are far worse environmentally if they are only used a handful of times and then loiter, unloved, in a corner. A 2016 report by the NSW Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found a cotton bag had to be used 131 times to equal the environmental impact of an HDPE bag used just once. A 2006 UK Government report came to a similar conclusion.

Also, commentator Rita Panahi reminds us that “Supermarkets the big winners from plastic bag ban”. She says:

But it’s not Australians who are dumping plastic bags and other rubbish in waterways in large numbers. The fact is that the majority of the plastic in the world’s oceans come from five countries: China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand. These five are contributing around one million tonnes of plastic trash to the seas each year, according to US environmental non-profit group Ocean Conservancy. A comprehensive study of plastic pollution published in 2015 suggested that the waste produced by the top polluting countries was even higher.

The research published in the journal of science ranked the top 20 polluting countries and found that 192 countries produced 275 million tonnes of plastic and between 4.8 to 12.7 million tonnes of this waste washed into the sea in a single year. China was the worst culprit, responsible for 1.32 to 3.52 million tonnes, followed by Indonesia and the Philippines. Australia contributed less than 0.01 tonnes to ocean plastic pollution. What sort of simple-minded mug believes that plastic bag bans in Australia will have any sort of impact in countries with poor sanitation practices where plastic is routinely dumped in the nearest waterway?

She too looks at some of the other studies on this:

A recent study in Britain, where plastic bags are taxed, found reusable bags needed to be reused up to 173 times before they had a lower environmental impact than ordinary plastic bags. “The environmental impact of all types of carrier bag is dominated by resource use and production,” it found. “Whatever type of bag is used, the key to reducing the impacts is to reuse it as many times as possible and where reuse for shopping is not practicable, other reuse, eg store-place bin-liners, is beneficial,” it said. A 2012 University of Pennsylvania study found San Francisco’s 2007 plastic bag ban killed people because reusable bags increased shoppers’ exposure to harmful bacteria that can infest them. “The San Francisco ban led to, conservatively, 5.4 annual additional deaths,” the authors concluded.

And a piece in today’s Australian by Adam Creighton is worth quoting from. He too notes the shoddy science being pushed here. He begins:

The author of a landmark study into plastic bags has likened to “religion” their impending removal from supermarkets, suggesting arguments against them are “complete furphies you can demolish in a few minutes of analysis”. Phillip Weickhardt, lead author of a 2006 Productivity Commission inquiry into waste management, said raising fines for littering made more sense. “This is largely religion, deeply felt,” he told The Weekend Australian. “Plastic bags are useful: hygienic, water proof. They have multiple uses and functions,” he added.

Coles will join Woolworths in removing “single use” plastic bags from its stores next month, extending nationwide bans on the ubiquitous bags already in place across all states and territories except NSW and Victoria. “The evidence plastic bags hurt marine life is very unpersuasive. When we looked at this we found that a lot of studies just cite each other; in fact we sourced it all back to some guy in Canada in the 1970s who’d done a study on the effect of fishing ropes on marine life,” he said.

But lest critics claim I am simply being biased here, let me conclude with an article found on the ABC Science website. The ABC can hardly be dismissed as a right-wing propogandist outfit. The piece looks at the green bags and finds them to be no panacea:

So-called “green bags”, which have been available in supermarkets now for a number of years, are a heavy-duty, non-woven polypropylene. These are much thicker and more robust than the 15-cent reusable variety, and usually retail for between $1 and $2. Polypropylene film, which is a type of plastic, is a by-product of oil refining. Despite being a product of fossil fuels, they’re a relatively low-energy intensive product to make. According to the British study, the production of polypropylene bags created about 11 times the “global warming potential” of single-use bags.

In other words, you have to use your green bags 11 times to break even from an emissions perspective. But they’re relatively efficient in terms of water use, and are strong enough to be used for years. According to Green Bag Co Australia, they can be thrown in the washing machine to clean, although they caution against putting them in the dryer, as polypropylene “can’t withstand high heat”. The drawback to the green bags though is they can break down into microplastics if they find their way into the environment and cause the same issues as their lightweight cousins.

Yes, we all need to have proper concern about the world we live in, and how our lifestyles impact on it. But sense and science, rather than emotions and hysteria, should be the way we proceed here. Oh, and by the way, our household has used cloth bags for years now, and no, I am not in the pay of the plastics industry.

[1970 words]

17 Replies to “On Banning Plastic Bags”

  1. Thanks Bill – As a person who still uses plastic bags, I feel less guilty now.

  2. What about all those little plastic bags I put all my fruit and vegetables in?

  3. A lot of the presumptions and calculations lie around the false assumptions that plastic bags are single use only but I have reused all mine many times until they disintegrate.

  4. Thanks for the information Bill. It is a dilemma. Instead of reducing plastic wrap etc. we see more and more being used. I saw a video clip of plastic bags being converted into pavers which seemed a good idea for villagers in Africa, but whether it could be undertaken on a large scale or whether it is environmentally friendly I don’t know. I will just have to get my crochet hook out and crochet my own bags.

  5. Now what to put kiddy car sick pukey mess into when travelling? Or put the pieces of a broken glass into, or the dirty nappy to hold it all together so it doesnt touch the bin into or dirty washing from camping or wet stuff from swimming ….one reason why we dont have as much rubbish blowing around our streets as other countries is because most of us contain our home waste in tied up plastic bags before we put it in the wheelie bins so it doesnt blow out when the bin is collected.

  6. Thanks for your research in this article, Bill. The ban on plastic bags reminds me of a marvelous quote, but I can’t think who said it first:–

    If the Greens found a plastic bag of aborted babies, they’d be absolutely horrified about the environmental impact of the non-biodegradable plastics used to make the bag.

  7. Hi Bill, thank you for a most enlightening article. The fact that Australia only contributes less than 0.01 tonnes (less than 10 kg) to ocean plastic pollution goes to highlight the complete stupidity of the argument for banning plastic bags. I’ve recently discussed this issue with our local greengrocer. They’re part of a large chain, and have no intention of getting rid of their plastic shopping bags. I must say that the anecdotal evidence you highlighted on the health risks associated with reusable shopping bags was a real concern. As you most aptly quoted, fear mongering, fake science, and other bogus moves will not help the environment one little bit. Thanks again Bill for the reality check on plastic bags. Regards, Kel.

  8. Let’s be clear on this. It’s not about the environment. It’s about cutting costs. If the shops were that serious about the environment they should stop packaging everything and sell their products “naked” the way they used to centuries ago. Of course that’s totally impractical today and will never happen. Hypocrisy is exposed yet again.

  9. I can assure you that, in my family, no plastic bag adds to the litter. Every single one ends up in landfill – after it has been used as a garbage bin liner. Now what are we going to do for liners?

  10. I have at least 100 plastic bags to use up, simply because they are used in Safeway to bag my groceries, and I then refuse to throw them out after one single use. I use them as bin liners, rubbish bags, to empty my vacuum cleaner, and they have 101 other uses. I refuse to put wet and/or putrid rubbish directly into my rubbish bin – and I NEVER throw out an empty bag so that it can be a trap for marine life!! I see no sense in this latest ruling, and wonder how long it will take for it to be recognized for what it is: an extremist greenie obsession. And if we are castigated for bagging in order to prevent disease (as all nurses have been trained to do for many years) then God help us!

  11. Were they serious about saving energy, supermarkets and office buildings would turn off their electric lights during the daytime. All printers and photocopiers would be set to print on both sides of the paper by default. And politicians, especially the “Greens”, would stop polluting the countryside with airbrushed photos of themselves, printed on non-biodegradeable plastic corflute.

  12. If anyone likes to keep on using “single use” plastic bags for whatever reason they can be purchased on ebay very cheaply.

  13. Great article Bill,

    It’s easy to just dismiss the bag ban debate as a cash grab by the big supermarkets, which it is.

    Of course it’s really great to see that there’s a whole lot of really simple common sense science debunking this malarky too.

    Thanks for your hard work mate.

  14. Hi Bill
    Just questioning the article by Rita Panahi where she states Australia only contributes 0.01 tons of plastic waste per annum. As Kelvin Nairn pointed out, that’s only 10 Kg. To my mind that doesn’t seem quite right as even in our pristine little corner on the Sunshine Coast, a walk on the beach will usually uncover half a dozen bags in only a short walk.
    Could the decimal point have been misplaced?

  15. The issue of whether a plastic bag ban in Australia does anything for the ocean reminds me of the Ky?t? Protocol, whereby reductions form the EU and Japan that made no difference were passed, whereas the much worse polluters, as Melbourne University’s Dimitri Lafleur has shown, of Saudi Arabia and Iran were allowed to emit as much as they wanted. The whole Ky?t? Protocol, analysed today, smells of “white guilt” and ignoring much worse non-European polluters in the supposedly oppressed but actually supremely powerful Arab World. The plastic bag ban is little different, and has hardly made any difference for me because I buy shopping bags that ultimately end as rubbish bags.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *