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plastic bag rubbish

Page history last edited by Andrew Alder 3 years, 10 months ago

A draft. A work in progress. Watch this space, or see genuinely biodegradable.




Recently (as of September 2018) "single use" plastic bags have now been banned from many Australian supermarkets, such as Coles, Woolworths and some (not all) IGA, and other retailers such as Bunnings. Actually, Bunnings have never offered these plastic bags, but as a result of the ban by other retail outlets, their staff now endure abuse from customers who ask for bags, and who assume that they once did, like Woolworths and Coles.


So it's a bit controversial, and rightly so. Because while it's based on a very good idea, it's a nuisance, and a lost opportunity, and a lot of rubbish. And as a result of this lost opportunity and the political and religious-intensity rubbish that produced it, Australians are probably now damaging the environment even more badly than we were before the ban, and likely to continue to do so.


Rubbish is like that. 


And intelligent, informed discussion is notably absent. But let's have a go.



A golden opportunity has been lost, sacrificed to political gain and greenwashing.  


People aren't going to stop using plastic bags. They're just going to use others that will in most cases be more damaging to the environment, not less.


On the other hand, compostible bags have long been available that do protect the environment (and others, questionably termed biodegradeable, that pretend do and don't - still more greenwashing).


So why aren't compostible bags being promoted? The smart money is, because the spin doctors are predicting that their political masters will not benefit from such a relatively uncontroversial and sensible idea. Still more greenwashing. 



Bags aint bags

There are several sorts of plastic bags, and several other alternatives. All of them have their good and bad points. They include:


Type 1: There are the single-use, non-biodegradable plastic bags that were previously given away by all supermarkets and most other retail outlets, and still are by many. They are cheap (but don't try to buy them in domestic quantities), thin, reasonably durable and have for some decades been my mainstay for wrapping household rubbish neatly and hygienically. But they do take a long time to break down in the environment, and we were using an enormous number of them.


Type 2: There are so-called "bio-degradeable" bags that were trialed by some supermarkets years ago, and that break up into smaller plastic flakes. These flakes take just as long to break down as type 1 bags.


Type 3: There are "compostable" bags that are truly biodegradeable.


Type 4: There are reusable plastic bags, sold by many supermarkets and temporarily given away by some of them. Some of these are insulated for frozen or refrigerated foods. All are a lot thicker than type 1, 2 or 3 bags, and take at least as long to break down as types 1 and 2. Some retailers have long given away very similar bags too, generally with some advertising. 


Type 5: There are reusable bags made of hessian or similar.


Type 6: Not a bag but an alternative, some retail outlets encourage you to use a box that they'd otherwise pay someone to take away. (Bunnings have for many years, and my local IGA now does.)


Type 7: There are rubbish bags that have long been available for retail sale. Nothing stopping you from using these for shopping or other purposes, except they're as bad as type 1 in almost all respects.


Type 8: You can take your own bucket, use your handbag, manbag or haversack... anything you have handy (or something you were going to buy anyway) that works for you. 


Any intelligent debate would consider the relative merits of all of these at least.


And it's not too late to do that. Well, in some ways it is. But let us have a go anyway. Better late than never.   



Fit for the purpose

The second question that needs to be asked is: What are these bags to be used for?


The first response is of course, well we use them for taking our shopping home. Call that purpose I.


And the second is almost as obvious: We use them for wrapping rubbish. But here the devil is in the detail. What rubbish? 


Domestic rubbish for collection by the authorities (such as shire, city and municipal councils) I'll call purpose II. But there are other types of rubbish, and other ways of disposing of it. If you have a second bin for "green" waste such as plant cuttings, leaves and lawn clippings, it's probably labelled with stern warnings NOT to use plastic bags.


But some people do, and type 1 and 2 bags are particularly unsuitable for this. That's why the warnings! Rubbish ain't (necessarily) rubbish. Call this "green" waste purpose III. And if you have a "recyclables" bin (often with a yellow lid but the colour code does vary a bit) then much the same applies... No bags please. But we'll call this purpose IV, for reasons that will become obvious. And for less obvious reasons we'll include some other purposes as purpose III, see below.


The type 1 bags were (and are) also very useful for packaging material when moving and/or storing personal effects. Purpose V. 


There are probably others, but those are enough to at least start a long-overdue analysis.


Because... and you're probably 'way ahead of me... the type of bag (or alternative) that's best depends on the purpose. That's obvious I think. The simplistic "ban type 1 bags" approach is good politics but may not be good for either the consumer or the environment. And I think it will actually turn out to be good for neither. But read on, and please, leave the rhetoric you've heard at great length behind and let us try to THINK about this.


Years ago as an auditor I used a simple system of risk assessment of three levels: A for Acceptable, B for Borderline, and C stood for various profanities that all meant unacceptable, so I'll use U instead. Let us try that.


Type 1 bags get a B for purpose I, for example. Despite being commonly known as "single use" they could be reused or recycled, and often were and are. They degrade eventually into horrible pollution otherwise, and in the meantime are a hazard as well. I am no friend of type 1 bags. No yachtie is. They cause more damage to marine diesel engines than probably all other causes combined. They're a B for purpose II, and a clear U for III and IV. 


See my plastic bag risk matrix. But the details don't matter. What matters is, does the ban on type 1 bags increase or decrease the risk level of unacceptable usage? 


What matters is, we need to analyse this. The knee-jerk solution (aka "it's German so it must be good") may well (and I think will) be counterproductive in Australia (and probably elsewhere too). 



The goal

The point of all this is to protect the environment.


Particularly, to protect it from the waste plastic that may well turn out to be more toxic than greenhouse gas, or even than Freon turned out to be (see http://www.thehole.org/ and if you haven't already seen it, highly recommended and surprising to most). But there's an opportunity here as well to reduce greenhouse gas, both by waste management and by reducing the energy consumption producing this packaging.


There are opportunities to improve waste management!


For example greenhouse gases can and should be reduced by harvesting methane from biodegradable household waste and burning it as fuel. Methane is a far worse greenhouse gas than the equivalent amount of carbon dioxide. This is facilitated if type 3 plastic bags replace types 1, 2 and 7 to package household waste, but hindered if type 4 bags do.


This is one of the risks of the ban. The simplistic (some would say stupid) reasoning on which it seems to be based is that we can improve things by replacing type 1 bags with type 4. It's not that simple. There are good reasons for thinking that this may in fact be a step backwards. Plastic pollution can and should be reduced. But replacing type 1 bags with type 4 probably worsens the problem, as these bags are thicker. Going to type 2 or 7 does not a lot of harm but is of no benefit.


Going to type 3 seems a win overall, but nobody seems to be promoting it, a lost opportunity at the very least, and a suspicious indicator that this is more about politics than about the environment.


Alternative 6 is a win, and those outlets that have been doing it for years deserve some good press, especially as their staff are now being abused for not offering bags! These customers don't seem to know that these outlets never did offer the bags, they just assume that they've joined the crowd in banning them.   


But type 4 bags aren't doing too well, are they? Watch this space! 


And meantime, ask questions. Please. The world is depending on you.



See also






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