Lightweight supermarket bags are used, on average, for 12 minutes. But they take hundreds, perhaps 1,000, years to break down.
The bags are made from polyethylene which comes from non-renewable fossil fuels, like natural gas and petroleum.
The modern single-use, singlet-style plastic bags was developed in only 1976. Before then people used baskets and string bags, cardboard boxes and paper bags.
At first consumers were slow to adopt them, but Australians now use an estimated 10 million single-use plastic bags every day.
The thin singlet type of bag is made from High Density Polyethylene (HDPE). They cannot be recycled with council collections – they jam the sorting machines at the recycling centres. Some supermarkets, like Coles at Broadway, have recycling bins specifically for them.
Far too many plastic bags end up as litter. That litter that is not just unsightly. In the water the bags become a danger to marine life.
Glebe, as a waterfront suburb, has a special responsibility to ban plastic bags.
Single use plastic bags were banned in South Australia in 2009. They have since been banned in Tasmania, the Northern Territory and the ACT and next year Queensland will ban them. They are banned in more than 30 countries including France, Italy, China, Ethiopia, Rwanda and Kenya.
The United Nations Environmental Programme described marine plastic pollution as a toxic time bomb. The program’s executive director, Achim Steiner, stated:
Single use plastic bags which choke marine life, should be banned or phased out rapidly everywhere. There is simply zero justification for manufacturing them anymore, anywhere.
Fish and marine animals, like turtles, can become entangled in plastic and die. But the real danger is when the plastics breakdown into microplastic, tiny pieces that marine animals and fish can eat. A study last year found there was far more – 37 times more – microplastic in the ocean that previously thought, and that posed a terrible danger:
To a curious seal, an intact packing band, a loop of plastic used to secure cardboard boxes for shipping, drifting in the water is a serious entanglement hazard, whereas bits of floating microplastic might be ingested by large filter-feeding whales down to nearly microscopic zooplankton.
Last year the Senate conducted an Inquiry into the threat of marine pollution in Australia. The report was titled ‘Toxic Tide: the threat of marine plastic’. It reported there was over 150 million tonnes of plastic waste in the oceans today, and the amount of plastic in the world’s oceans is forecast to grow to 250 million tonnes in 2025.
The Senate Inquiry reported that over 50 per cent of turtles worldwide have ingested marine debris and over 60 per cent of some species of seabirds have been found with plastic in their gut. Plastics contain many chemicals, some of them toxic.
The Inquiry recommended ‘that the Australian Government support states and territories in banning the use of single-use lightweight plastic bags. In doing so, the Australia Government should ensure that alternatives do not result in other pollutants entering the environment.’
Our neighbouring Inner West Council has called for a ban on single-use plastic bags, so why doesn’t the City of Sydney? The answer is they are waiting for the NSW State government to make a move, and there are no indications of that will happen any time soon.
Plastic bags are just one part of the problem, but banning single-use plastic bags is both practical and symbolic. It educates people about the risk plastic pollution poses, reduces plastic waste, and encourages people to recycle. Maybe it will even prompt people to ponder how we became a society in which a non-renewable resource millions of years old can become an environmental problem lasting hundreds of years, so people can have 12 minutes of convenience.
Notes on recycling plastic
Council recycling takes plastic bottles (please remove lids) as well as plastic containers and trays with a 1 or a 2 in the triangle on the bottom.
Soft plastic, broadly defined as plastic that can be scrunched into a ball e.g. plastic supermarket bags, bread bags, pasta and rice bags, wrappers around biscuit bags etc. can be placed in recycling bins at some supermarkets. Coles at Broadway has a bin, on the far right as you enter the store.