PLASTIC checkout shopping bags are still unwelcome in Fremantle, regardless of the state government’s lack of support for the council’s earlier proposed regulation. Mayor Brad Pettitt is pragmatic as well as emphatic; he acknowledges he is resigned to the government’s refusal last year to approve council’s local law banning the bags and hopes for individual action on the alternative of promoting voluntary change by businesses themselves.
Action on the bags is “for both environmental reasons and the impact it has on wildlife”, explains the mayor and he believes most city retailers support the plan, including some majors which have already introduced compostable and reusable bags, while others are holding back, awaiting head office authorisation. Dr Pettitt observes their position is that they will “obey the law, when it is the law”, but hopes they will eventually be recruited to the cause.
Potential customer backlash is a concern for some businesses without state government authority for the handy lightweight plastic not being on-call. The mayor is convinced that “Freo people” relate to the environmental reasons for change and mostly support it – furthermore, council’s spot surveys tended to confirm that. He observes that it is particularly relevant an oceanfront city understands the importance of not allowing more plastic into the ecosystem. Bags ending up in the sea are a menace to marine life. The problem is so great there is now a floating pool of rubbish in the Pacific, greater in extent than any other detectable human-caused impact on the environment. In countries prone to flooding such as Bangladesh, plastic bags have been labelled as responsible for blocked drains and it is no secret they will outlive us all, taking up to 1,000 years to break down in landfill.
Chamber of Commerce CEO Tim Milsom was a member of the council’s working group linked with the Plastic Free Freo initiative and feels the majority of shoppers will gradually cooperate. He notes that single-use plastic bags are being phased out around the world, quoting China as one significant example, where a total ban was introduced in 2008 because of problems with sewers and general waste.
There is however, some good news about plastic bags. University of Adelaide researchers have developed a process for turning them into high-tech sophisticated, expensive nanomaterial hundreds of times stronger than steel but six times lighter, with a variety of potential advanced applications. At the other extreme, it is controversially said that one of the greatest contributions the bags have made to human society is in developing countries where they are used as a toilet and end up hanging from trees.
Some world governments impose a tax or charge levied through the retailer for the bags, sometimes paid into a fund that goes to good causes and others leave it to the business itself. England, where its first plastic recycling plant recently opened, has announced a 5p (9 cents) levy from 2015. Levies in Ireland, Wales and Switzerland led to an 80 per cent reduction in the number of carrier bags issued.
Mayor Pettitt reports that, “We’re seeing globally that there is either a price or a ban on bags”. Retailers objecting to the requirement of charging customers a minimum of 10 cents for each of the new bags, call it yet another impost upon business but it can’t anyway be enforced without government backing.
However, that charge has a double purpose; not only does it reimburse the cost of the more expensive biodegradable replacements, it encourages people to BYO bags.South Australia, Northern Territory, the ACT and Tasmania have all enacted legislation, but Queensland back-flipped due to cost of living concerns and the NSW government is being lobbied to legislate. Fremantle is the first local authority to take up the challenge to de-plastic where the state has not, while it is unlikely the government will itself pick up the gauntlet. In South Australia, on whose legislation the proposed system for Fremantle is based, a charge is optional, while the loss of “free” supermarket bags (you pay for them in the end, after all) has resulted in more than doubling sales of plastic bin liners to replace them. However, less are thrown away or stockpiled.
It is important to unscramble the tangle of descriptions of various types of alternative bags and how they perform. That is, reusable ones and biodegradable cornstarch (compostable) are the standard, the latter being by far the best answer – but not degradable ones, which do not completely disintegrate. The mayor specifies the ban being on (repeat after him) polyethylene, polypropylene and polyethylene terephthalate less than 60 microns thick, while delivering the startling information: “Australia currently uses more than 6 billion plastic bags a year”.
Details on how to unlove plastic along with alternative options is on council’s web site and in distributed information. Council door-knocked every business and was determined to overcome any communication glitches to ensure every business was fully briefed. The new focus is on plastic bottles and non-reusable café tableware.
Universally available free supermarket-type plastic bags were welcomed as a wonder at the time of their introduction and have become a ubiquitous symbol of consumer waste and of our civilisation. Their embryonic forerunners date from the 1950s, the decade of the never-used hydrogen bomb. Which has caused more damage? It should have been “ban the bag”, as well as “ban the bomb”.
Now, those new cornstarch compostable bags: can they be eaten? There’s a thought, that would make them really recyclable. And the closer from sustainability expert (and recycled) Mayor Pettitt: “If you can’t show this kind of environmental leadership in a place like Freo, where can you do it?”
by Colin Nichol