Is banning plastic bags the best option to tackle litter and reduce waste?

Guest post by Rod Bogaards

It looks like a push is on to ban single-use plastic bags nationally according to the Courier-Mail. A ban has already been implemented in some of the smaller states and territories but not elsewhere. Perhaps there is good reason to be cautious.

In 2005, the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) agreed to phase out single-use plastic bags by 2008 because of the alleged problems that plastic bags pose for the litter stream and marine wildlife. Plastic bag litter is seen as a particularly undesirable because it:

  • can be highly visible and long lasting, since plastic bags easily become airborne, are moisture resistant and take many years to decompose, and
  • has the potential to injure or kill wildlife, particularly in the marine environment through ingestion or entanglement.

But the 2006 Productivity Commission (PC) inquiry into waste management found a wholesale ban on plastic bags was unlikely to address the problems identified, or solve the litter problem more generally. This is because a ban would penalise most uses of plastic bags, whereas the potential environmental benefit would only come from the less than 1% of bags that are littered.

The PC found that:

  • Only a small proportion (0.8%) of plastic bags become litter (although available estimates suggest that in absolute terms, plastic bag litter is significant).
  • Although the impact of plastic bag litter on marine life is uncertain, the available evidence suggests fishing-related debris, rather than land-based sources, is the principal source of litter hazardous to marine wildlife.
  • Despite successful initiatives to reduce the use of plastic bags, particularly from supermarkets (the number of retail carry bags fell by 34% from 2002 to 2005), the decline did not appear to translate into a fall in plastic bag litter. The likelihood of a supermarket bag being littered is low as people use them to carry goods to their homes. Bags supplied for away-from-home uses – such as to carry takeaway food – are much more likely to be littered.
  • A cost-benefit analysis, commissioned by the Environment Protection and Heritage Council (EPHC), considered eleven regulatory options (ranging from a ban or levy through to a new code of practice for retailers) and found that all of them would impose a net cost on the community.

The PC recommended an assessment of alternative approaches that specifically targeted litter, rather than all plastic bag uses and to focus on away from-home sources of litter entering marine environments. The subsequent EPHC Regulatory Impact Statement (RIS) acknowledged that targeting litter may be a more cost-effective solution to the plastic bag problem, but rejected the option because it was inconsistent with the commitment to phase out plastic bags. In April 2008, the EPHC decided not to endorse uniform regulatory action to ban or place a charge on plastic bags. However, four jurisdictions have implemented their own bans.

The reviews of plastic bag bans in SA, ACT and the NT show that there can be some perverse consequences when consumers modify their behaviour in response to a ban.

The SA Review found that previously many households used single-use plastic shopping bags to line their bins and, as a result of the ban, significantly more consumers have turned to purchasing bin liners:

… the purchase of bin liners by households has increased from 15% to 80%, raising some scepticism about the broader environmental benefit of the ban.

The ACT Review showed that an increase in reusable plastic shopping bags partially offset the decline in single-use plastic bags (by weight) following the ban:

… this review estimates that around 114 tonnes of boutique bags were sent to landfill in the period 1 May 2013 to 31 October 2013, compared to an estimated 182 tonnes of single-use plastic bags in the period 1 May 2011 to 31 October 2011.

The ACT Review did show a reduction in plastic bag litter following the ban but there are still too few data points to be confident in the results.

Finally, the NT Review indicated that both reusable plastic shopping bags and bin liner numbers increased significantly post ban (see table below of bag and bin liner numbers per year in the NT).

Pre-Ban

Post Ban

Banned Single-Use Plastic Bags

31 502 000

0

Reusable Shopping Bags

256 000

7 298 000

Bin Liners and Kitchen Tidy Bags

8 000 000

22 150 000

TOTAL

39 758 000

29 448 000

The review concluded, that despite a reduction of 10.3 million bags per year, given the diversity of bag types of varying thickness that were available, it was uncertain whether there was a reduction in overall plastic usage in the NT.

Overall, it remains unclear whether the benefits to the environment from plastic bag bans have been as large as anticipated, and worth the inconvenience and direct financial cost to consumers of purchasing alternative bags. It will be interesting to see what new evidence is put forward to Environment Ministers who are considering this issue at their next meeting in Sydney on Monday.

Rod Bogaards is an economist and former Director of the Productivity Commission.

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8 Responses to Is banning plastic bags the best option to tackle litter and reduce waste?

  1. Glen says:

    I was in Darwin last week and the Coles up there charge you for a plastic bag. It is quite a robust bag which would be reusable many times over, I thought it was a good idea and didn’t mind paying the charge, people who go there to shop can simply take their own bags or pay for them if required. The key is for people to know in advance so they can make an informed choice.

  2. bjreconomics says:

    I recently moved to Canberra and found the similar situation to Glen where you pay for a more robust plastic bag. However, the thing is the more robust plastic bag will end up in the dump and will not degrade as fast as the lighter bags. The newer plastic bags are bio degradable therefore could be better than the new heavy duty bags.

  3. White Elephant says:

    With all the money spent on ‘inquiries’ and ‘commissions’ they could have employed thousands of people to pick up the discarded bags.

    • Gene Tunny says:

      Thanks White Elephant. Yes some of these inquiries and commissions were probably a waste of money given it should be pretty clear that banning plastic bags is bad policy.

  4. Jim says:

    Rod

    A good (and timely) post. A few observations:

    a) it is the absolute loads of waste entering waterways each year and the new increase in pollutant concentrations that is the important point as there are threshold effects and risks to marine life. This, in conjunction with other pollutants (e.g sediment) and the loss of seagrass/habitat is having a huge impact on dugong/turtle populations. Any sensible approach to protecting marine wildlife needs to look at the multiple and cumulative risks (including plastic bags). Addressing bags and bottle entering waterways is a necessary, but insufficient. approach top protecting marine life.
    b) The PC conclusion about “fishing-related debris” is pretty old, and in my understanding from talking to scientists who work in this area, this risk now is much lower (changes to technology change, regulations, monitoring). Similarly direct discharge of waste from boats has also reduced significantly.
    c) The dominant risk from waste to marine wildlife is now often packaging of the individual products (chip packets, drink bottles, bottle top etc); not bin liners and necessarily supermarket plastic bags. d) The bottom line is that the risk profile has changed a lot since the PC (and others) have done their work, so the focus on banning supermarket plastic bags is probably a pretty poorly targeted policy.

    On top of some behavioural programs (don’t litter) I think the solutions are actually more technology-based:

    1) More effective use of gross pollution traps (the big net-like things) that capture rubbish from the storm water outflows before the water enters the river system and ultimately the marine environment. This is a proven technology, but only a fraction of the storm water outfall pipes have them installed and they are often poorly maintained. Local governments need to lift their game here. The cost impost on the community is negligible.
    2) Better biodegradable packaging. Generally liquids and perishable foods cannot use biodegradable packaging, so their pollution risk has a long time frame if the items are not disposed of properly. This exacerbates the cumulative risks of pollution. Anyone that can invent packaging for liquids and other perishables that is quickly biodegradable will really be onto a winner.

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