Tag Archives: plastic bags

In banning plastic bags we need to make sure we’re not creating new problems

The Conversation

Trevor Thornton, Deakin University

The recent decision by Australia’s big two supermarkets to phase out free single-use plastic bags within a year is just the latest development in a debate that has been rumbling for decades.

State governments in Queensland and New South Wales have canvassed the idea, which has been implemented right across the retail sector in South Australia and the Australian Capital Territory.

So far, so good. But are there any downsides? Many of you, for instance, face the prospect of paying for bin liners for the first time ever. And while that might sound tongue-in-cheek, it shows the importance of considering the full life-cycle of the plastics we use.

Pros and cons

On a direct level, banning single-use plastic bags will avoid the resource use and negative environmental impacts associated with their manufacture. It will reduce or even eliminate a major contaminant of kerbside recycling. When the ACT banned these bags in 2011 there was a reported 36% decrease in the number of bags reaching landfill.

However, the ACT government also noted an increase in sales of plastic bags designed specifically for waste. These are typically similar in size to single-use shopping bags but heavier and therefore contain more plastic.

Ireland’s tax on plastic shopping bags, implemented in 2002, also resulted in a significant increase in sales of heavier plastic waste bags. These bags are often dyed various colours, which represents another resource and potential environmental contaminant.

Keep Australia Beautiful, in its 2015-16 National Litter Index, reported a 6.2% reduction in the littering of plastic bags relative to the previous year, while also noting that these represent only 1% of litter.

Meanwhile, alternatives such as paper or canvas bags have environmental impacts of their own. According to a UK Environmental Agency report, a paper bag would need to be re-used at least four times, and cotton bags at least 173 times, to have a lower environmental impact than single-use plastic bags in terms of resource use, energy and greenhouse outcomes.

This illustrates the importance of considering the full life cycle of shopping bags to arrive at an evidence-based decision rather than one based on emotion or incomplete data. I am not suggesting this is the case with plastic shopping bags; I’m just pointing out the value of proper analysis.

Simply banning a certain type of bag, while this may be a good idea in itself, could result in other knock-on impacts that are harder to manage. Replacing shopping bags with heavier, more resource-intensive ones may solve some environmental impacts but exacerbate others.

Plastics, not plastic bags

In a 2016 discussion paper, Western Australia’s Local Government Association suggested that the focus of action should be plastics in general, not just shopping bags.

As the Keep Australia Beautiful data show, plastic bags are just a small part of a much bigger problem. Many other plastic items are entering the litter stream too.

With this in mind, it pays to ask exactly why we are banning plastic shopping bags. Is it the litter issue, the potential impact on wildlife, the resource consumption, all of the above, or something else? Is it because they are plastic, because they are disposable, or because it saves supermarkets money?

The answers to these questions can guide the development of an effective strategy to reduce the environmental (and perhaps economic) burden of taking our shopping home. With that in place, we can then develop an education strategy to help shoppers adapt and make the scheme a success. But this costs money.

The triple bottom line

There should be plenty of money available. The Victorian state government’s Sustainability Fund, for instance, has A$419 million to spend over the next five years on researching alternatives to shopping and household waste management. Developing a shopping bag strategy would consume only a small part of this and would be money well spent.

The concept of the “triple bottom line” – ensuring that decisions are based equally on environmental, social and economic considerations – needs to be applied to decisions about whether to ban single-use plastic bags, and what alternatives will result. The problem with simply announcing a ban is that this leaves it up to shoppers themselves to work out what to do to replace them.

Evidence-based policy is crucial. We first need to find out how many people already use re-usable bags, whether they always take them to the shops, and what items they put in them. Do people generally know how many times each type of bag should be re-used in order to be an environmentally better choice than the current plastic bags? What’s the best material for re-usable bags, taking into account not only their environmental credentials but also their ability to get your shopping home without breaking?

The ConversationWhen it comes to environmental impacts, it’s important not to simply exchange one problem for another. If all we’re doing is swapping between different types of plastic, it’s hard to see how we’re solving anything.

Trevor Thornton, Lecturer, School of Life and Environmental Sciences, Deakin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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Why you’re almost certainly wasting time rinsing your recycling

The Conversation

File 20170524 5752 rggjpq
Your recycling doesn’t have to be sparkling clean. Monticello/Shutterstock.com

Trevor Thornton, Deakin University

Once a fortnight we diligently wheel our recycling bin to the kerb, and then probably give ourselves a pat on the back while thinking of all the useful products we have helped to create, and the resources and energy we have saved. The Conversation

Yet it pays to think a bit more deeply about what is going into each bin. Audits of kerbside collections have shown that around 10% (by volume) of the material placed in kerbside recycling bins shouldn’t be there. The most common “contamination” items include plastic bags (both full and empty), textiles, green waste, polystyrene (styrofoam) and general rubbish.

The problem cuts the other way too. Around a third of landfill waste bins routinely contain recyclables or green waste.

How many of us actually know where the contents of our recycling bin go, who manages it, and how the various materials are separated? This knowledge is a crucial element in reducing contamination and improving our recycling industry.

Bin information

A 2005 report found that 48% of Australians are confused about what can and cannot be recycled, not least because the rules and practices differ between local governments and commercial operators, and between households and workplaces.

For household recycling, we generally receive an annual flyer from the council telling us what should and shouldn’t go in the recycling bin. But there is typically little or no feedback on whether we’re getting it right.

By way of example, ask yourself (and your friends) how much time you spend rinsing out tins, yoghurt pots and other food containers before throwing them in the recycling.

The truth is that you don’t have to do this at all, because today’s recycling systems can easily cope with the levels of food often found in or on these containers. Yet many householders still do it, either because they were never told it was unnecessary, or because they were given the information but didn’t read it. Meanwhile, we waste water, energy and time rinsing our recycling.

Where’s the info?

A recent confidential report compiled for four regional councils in Victoria found that only 29% of householders had ever looked at a council website for information about recycling. Most respondents said they got their information from schools, local newspapers and bin stickers.

It is important to have clear information from the right source about which items can and can’t be recycled. One example is plastic shopping bags, which many supermarkets urge their customers to recycle by placing them in dedicated bins on the shop premises. But this might prompt shoppers to think that plastic bags can be recycled in their kerbside collection too, which is typically not the case. And, as we saw above, relatively few householders check their local council’s website for the right information.

Plastic bags are just one of the common contaminants in the recycling stream that result in large volumes of recyclables being rejected and disposed of in landfill. This comes at a cost to the council, and therefore to us.

Plastic shopping bags inevitably accumulate after a trip to the supermarket.
mtsofan/flickr, CC BY-NC-SA
Some shopping centres will have bins for recycling plastic bags, but plastic bags typically belong in the rubbish. chartphoto/flickr

Many items can be recycled, given the right equipment. To persist with the plastic bag example, these require a machine that can separate them from the rest of the waste stream.

But this doesn’t work for full plastic bags, regardless of whether they contain rubbish or other recyclables. Full bags go straight to landfill because it is too laborious to empty them, and in some cases (such as when they contain nappies) doing so poses a health risk for workers at the recycling facility.

A little consumer knowledge goes a long way – both in improving the efficiency of our recycling systems and in increasing the motivation of householders who know they’re helping to make life easier for those who process their recycling.

Disposables vs reusables

We must also have a good think, not just about the items we put in the recycling, but about which products we choose to use in the first place. Although we are bombarded with messages about reducing our use of disposable items, in some cases disposable is actually better.

It’s better to rewash and reuse ceramics instead of using polystyrene cups… but only after 1,006 uses. shadowfoot/flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

One study found that a ceramic cup would need to be used at least 39 times to be a better option than paper disposable cups, and 1,006 times when compared with a styrofoam one. A plastic reusable cup would need to be washed at least 17 times to be more sustainable than paper disposable ones, and 450 times when compared with styrofoam.

So if you’re prone to losing or breaking things (or just collecting too many reusable cups!), then it might be wise to consider going disposable (or being more careful).

Then comes the issue of whether and how these disposable cups can be recycled. Most outlets now use paper rather than styrofoam cups. While the plastic lid can be recycled, in most instances the cup cannot as there is a film of a plastic waterproof material inside it.

A good plan is to ask whether your favourite café stocks cups that can be recycled. If so, encourage them to put up a sign (if they haven’t already) indicating that they use fully recyclable cups, to avoid confusion.

The key to all of this is knowledge and balance – that is, after all, what sustainability is all about.

Trevor Thornton, Lecturer, School of Life and Environmental Sciences, Deakin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation.  (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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