When Woolworths and Coles announced in July that they were phasing out the use of plastic shopping bags, it was only a matter of time before our politicians got in on the act.
So it was no surprise when the Andrews Government announced a statewide ban on so-called “single use” plastic bags.
Sadly, the State Opposition is supporting the ban. In fact, their only complaint seems to be that Daniel Andrews hasn’t done away with plastic bags already.
There are a number of problems with this addition to Victoria’s jungle of red tape. For one thing, it’s insultingly paternalistic — based on the idea that ordinary people are too stupid and irresponsible to make good consumer choices without government encouragement. But more to the point, experience elsewhere shows bans on plastic bags have no actual environmental benefit, despite the obvious inconvenience to consumers.
For instance, in the ACT — which has been “plastic-free” since 2011 — the prohibited “single-use” bags are defined as “lightweight polyethylene plastic bags (of less than 35 microns)”, even if such bags are biodegradable. But the government does allow “heavier reusable plastic bags” which are “made of thicker plastic”.
So, bizarrely, thin plastic bags are out, but thicker ones are fine.
The idea is that shoppers will be more inclined to reuse bags if they’re made of thicker plastic.
But, as the ACT’s Department of Environment says on its website, the bags “only have a better environmental outcome than single-use shopping bags if reused at least four times, so remember to take them with you when shopping”.
Sage advice. Except most people aren’t in the habit of carrying shopping bags on them at all times. Yes, some people may end up saving a handful of bags for their big weekly shop. But most won’t. Some people will forget. Others will have to buy a new bag or two when, for example, they stop by the supermarket to grab a few items on the way home from work.
Then there will be many others who just can’t be bothered washing out, storing and carrying around old bags.
That’s why plastic bag bans are such a lousy idea: They don’t actually change consumer behaviour all that much.
Ireland, for example, recently jacked up the minimum cost of its bags from 15 to 22 cents because shoppers were so used to the surcharge that the number of plastic bags used there quickly rose to pre-ban levels.
Even green groups in Australia have conceded that bans on plastic bags don’t discourage their use. Only a few months ago, the Keep Australia Beautiful Council revealed that plastic bag litter had actually increased in the Northern Territory since a ban there was introduced in 2011.
If anything, bans on thinner plastic bags are actually more harmful for the environment. Because so few people reuse the thicker purchased bags, a greater amount of plastic ends up going to the landfill. In terms of weight and volume, people end up using more plastic, not less.
Consumers also tend to switch to products which take longer to decompose — as was the experience in South Australia, where the sale of thick green bin liners soared after their ban on shopping bags was introduced.
But that shouldn’t be surprising to the majority of people who’ve used old shopping bags to line bins, pick up animal droppings or carry dirty laundry. There really is no such thing as a “single-use” plastic bag. They can be — and are — reused already. All bans do is push consumers on to substitutes that are often worse.
Of course, these substitutes will be available for sale at Woolworths and Coles. The going rate for a “reusable” shopping bag, for instance, will be about 15 cents.
It’s estimated that the financial benefit of charging for something that they used to give away for free will run into the hundreds of millions.
Maybe that’s why the major retailers are applauding the loudest for the ban, even though both the environment and the consumer will be poorer for it.
(Originally published 03/10/17)
(Image: The Herald Sun, 26/10/17)