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  • Writer's picturestudies_in_scarlett

Waste not, want not.

Updated: Dec 3, 2018

Why can’t Australia just get it in the bag?

(Scientific Terminology Level: 1)

Figure 1 Map of countries doing their part in regards to plastic bag bans. Source: Scarlett Li-Williams

In 2017, Kenya implemented a country-wide ban of plastic bags, which also applied to distributors and producers of single-use bags. This stance was harshened further this year, as the sale or use of plastic bags now carries either a four-year jail sentence or a fine of up to $50,000.[1] Since the policy was passed, unsurprisingly, it has been one of the most effective bag-bans in the world, with significant positive effects on the Nairobian environment. Waterways are notably cleaner, and food is less contaminated with plastics. Plastic dumped in the ocean travels up the food chain, eventually reaching our own stomachs; the fish consume it and thus we consume it, ingesting our own toxic pollution. As a smaller amount of plastic is dumped, a smaller amount travels up the food chain to consumers. Before the ban, David Ong’are, the enforcement director of the Kenyan National Environment Management Authority, said that plastic was found in the guts of roughly 3/10 animals being farmed for consumption, and as of 2017, this has reduced to an estimated 1/10.[2] However, it is not all good news, as currently the most popular alternative to using plastic bags in Kenya is biodegradable fibre bags, which are six times more expensive than plastic bags. The refusal or resilience of customers to buying these fibre bags has badly impacted local businesses. Requests to the government to provide a cheaper alternative to complement the introduction of the ban have so far gone unsatisfied [2].

Chile passed a national law against plastic bags with the aim to save the Chilean beaches, and although the ban only applies to coastal areas, it covers an impressive total of 230 cities, and has proven to have skyrocketed Chile’s tourism industry and economy. Less plastic and litter on the beaches means Chile has become a very popular vacation spot. As the ban has had such a positive impact on the Chilean tourist economy, fines of $300 USD are now issued to businesses that continue to distribute plastic bags during peak vacation times.[1] As of 2018, Chile will ban retail businesses from using plastic bags in order to continue to protect the country’s 4,000-mile coastline.[2]

English supermarkets have been at war with plastic for a few years now, and the extent of the impact has been highly surprising. In 2015, England introduced a 5p tax charge (roughly 9 cents) for plastic bags at all supermarkets[3], enforced by the Government to reduce litter and protect wildlife.[4] The law was sparked by findings that the number of carrier bags given out by the seven major supermarkets in England had exceeded 7.6 billion in 2014, meaning a total of 61,000 tonnes of plastic [5]. To put that number in context, that is the weight of roughly 12,200 male African elephants or 30,500 Land Rovers. When this new law was put in place, it sparked a similar outcry amongst the general public as the plastic bag ban did in Australia, but it was soon accepted as the norm. By June 2016, there was an 85% decrease in use of plastic bags in England, exceeding the government’s expectation that plastic bag numbers would fall around 70%.5 By 2018, there has been an overall 90% decrease in the use of single-use plastic bags, meaning that not only are people becoming more environmentally conscious (or just too stingy to spend 5p), but also that there are billions fewer plastic bags going to landfill or into the oceans every year [5].

However, the U.K. is not yet finished in its efforts to remove plastic waste; it seems plastic bags are simply not enough. The Marine Conservation Society’s 2015 annual beach clean-up indicated that the amount of rubbish dumped on UK beaches rose by a third compared with the previous year. The main offender was plastic drink bottles, up to 43% more found compared with the previous year. In January of this year, the use of microbeads has been banned in the U.K., and next to be banned are all plastic straws, cotton swabs, and single-use plastics. These bans are part of a 25-year environmental plan to reduce plastic waste in many forms across the UK.[7]

A few states in the U.S. are hopping on the anti-plastic bag train, and whilst not all the U.S. is on board, it is starting to travel the nation. At least 73 bills have been introduced in state legislatures regarding the use of plastic bags in retail, with these bills proposing a ban or fee on bags, and also improving recycling programs.

Figure 2 Map of the different U.S. States with Plastic Bag Legislation. Source: National Conference of State Legislatures,

Washington, D.C. was one of the first cities to tackle plastic pollution by implementing a tax on plastic bags of 5 cents, and since 2009 there’s been an 85% reduction in plastic bag consumption, a result very similar to the UK.[8] Seattle attempted to enforce a complete ban of plastic bags, instigating a $1.4 million lobby against the plan while it was being introduced.[8] In the end, 100% plastic bags were completely banned; supermarkets were prohibited from providing plastic bags, but they were allowed to provide plastic bags, taxed at 5 cents per bag, so long as they contained a minimum of 40% recycled material. San Francisco doubled the charge for plastic bags to a 10 cent tax, and Boston plans at the end of this year to follow the trend of the other three innovative cities.[9] In addition, recycling programmes have been initiated in states such as Arizona, California, Illinois, New York and Rhode Island [9].

So, what about Australia?

Australia is still struggling with how to handle plastic bag bans and commit to the reduction in plastic pollution, and the whole world appears to be watching while we get it in the bag. Unfortunately, there is no national or federal legislation enforced in regard to plastics like other countries in the world; it is up to each state to enforce its own laws, or choose to enforce nothing at all. A plastic bag ban exists in South Australia, Tasmania, the Northern Territory, the ACT [10] and WA have just banned plastic bags from the 1st July 2018 and Queensland this year too; [11] it is just the government of NSW who have not committed to anything as of yet; maybe they will bow to the peer pressure at some point.

The first state to start the trend was South Australia, which passed a bill in Parliament in 2008, enforced in 2009, banning the free provision of bags at the checkout, with retailers facing fines of up to $5,000 for distributing banned bags, and retailer suppliers facing a heftier $20,000.[12] However, they cannot take full credit for initiating the environmentally conscious sweep in Australia, as Coles Bay, a town in Tasmania, was the first across the line to completely ban non-biodegradable plastic bags in 2003[13], and Tasmania subsequently enforced a state-wide ban in 2013. The Northern Territory and the ACT both went plastic bag-free at checkouts in 2011, and in November 2016, the Queensland Government announced it would ban plastic bags from 2018[14], as well as instituting a container refund recycling scheme. This recycling scheme, known as the Container Deposit Legislation (CDL), or Container Deposit Scheme (CDS), was first implemented in South Australia in the 1970s before spreading all over Australia, whereby glass bottles and cans can be returned by the public and deposited in local receptacles for money, thereby encouraging the re-use and recycling of glass and aluminium cans [11]. Whilst NSW has battled for a similar scheme to CDL to be put in place, they are the only state in Australia to currently not have a plastic bag ban in place.[15]

Some companies, in response to the lack of a nation-wide ban, are trying to take the matter into their own hands in order to change consumer behaviour. The first attempts at removing plastic bags came on the 20th June by Woolworths, and then 1st July by Coles, by removing the availability of single-use bags at the checkout, and providing reusable bags in their place. However, the public outcry and upset surrounding the ban truly made it seem like the general public had to pay admission to enter the supermarket.[15] Articles were published with advice on ‘how to live without plastic’, ‘how to remember your reusable bags’, and ‘how to phase out the plastic in your life’, which made the whole concept seem revolutionary. After a rollercoaster ride of this supermarket banning them, then re-introducing them, then banning them again, on 1st August, Coles announced that they would continue to offer free plastic bags indefinitely.[16] Yet, as of 17th August, the author of this article has personally still not seen any plastic bags whilst doing her shopping, so it’s possible that the enforced ban continues in secrecy and is being disguised by the media…

In light of all this effort, and the success of the bans overseas, why are Australians still desperately clutching on to their plastic bags? Some arguments attempt to explain it as a matter of practicality - the argument, for example, that plastic bags are necessary as bin liners; however, the counter-argument to this - that few shoppers seem to be aware of - is that there are biodegradable bags available at supermarkets such as Woolworths and Coles. When the practical arguments don’t stack up, it becomes clear that, fundamentally, the issue boils down to the time, effort, and money required to be more conscious about one’s use of plastic. For many, the environmental impact simply doesn’t outweigh the lesser convenience of a reusable shopping bag. However, as shown in so many other international examples, our adaptability, to what is in reality a very small lifestyle change, means we are capable of getting used to bringing our bags with us. Over time, it will be drilled into our minds to always have a reusable bag in the back of our cars or bikes, or to have a compact one in our bags and pockets. The challenge is to overcome our attachment to the easiest personal option. Our consistent preference for ease means a move like a plastic bag ban can seem futile without any direct benefit to the consumer; this is the fundamental problem that has to be consciously overcome.


[1] Matt, T ‘A plastic bag ban that works: Kenya's war on waste comes with a $50,000 fine’, Financial Review, 13 July 2018, accessed 11 August 2018 from <>

[2] Watts, J ‘Eight months on, is the world's most drastic plastic bag ban working?’, The Guardian, 25 April 2018, accessed 10 August 2018 from <>

[3] Bonnefoy P, ‘Chile Bans Plastic Bags at Retail Businesses’ The New York Times, 1 July 2018, accessed 9 August 2018, <>

[4] BBC News ‘Chile bans plastic bags for businesses’, 3 August 2018, accessed 8 August 2018 <>

[5] Smithers, R ‘England's plastic bag usage drops 85% since 5p charge introduced’ The Guardian, 30 July 2016, accessed 8 August 2018, <>

[6] Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs, ‘ Carrier bags: why there's a charge’, The Gov.UK, 11 January 2018, accessed 7 August 2018, < paper>

[7] Nace T, ‘UK To Ban All Plastic Straws, Cotton Swabs, And Single-Use Plastics’, Forbes, 25 April 2018, accessed 9 August 2018 <>

[8] Earth Day Network, ‘ Global Efforts to Ban Plastic Bag Pollution: Single – Use Plastics ‘, accessed 9 August 2018

[9] National Conference of State Legislatures, ‘STATE PLASTIC AND PAPER BAG LEGISLATION’, National Conference of State Legislatures , 17 May 2018, accessed 9 August 2018,

[10] Waste Management Review, ‘The effect of banning the bag’, 6 Decemeber 2017, accessed 9 August 2018, < effect of banning the bag>

[11] Government of Western Australia. 2018 ‘WA's ban on lightweight plastic bags’, accessed 22 August 2018 <>

[12] Williamson B, ‘SA's plastic bag ban’, ABC Adalaide, 23 April 2009, accessed 8 August 2018, <>

[13] Mail & Guardian ‘Tasmania carries eco-fight, bans plastic bags’, Mail & Guardian, 29 April 2003, accessed 9 August 2018, <>

[14] Australian Associated Press, ‘Queensland bans single-use plastic bags from July 2018’ 6 September 2018, accessed 8 August 2018 <>

[15] Collett M, ‘Plastic bags: How are Australians coping in this brave new world without them?’, ABC News, 24 July 2018, accessed 8 August 2018 <>

[16] Brook B, ‘Coles to open every checkout on Sunday as staff union warns customers could become abusive due to plastic bag ban’ 29 June 2018, accessed 8 August 2018 < >


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