What impact will a plastic bag ban have on the local industry? 

by PlastixANZ 

In this edition of PlastixANZ Editorial we will be looking at; 

  • Impact on Retail Sales,
  • The alternatives to soft plastic bags,
  • How plastic packaging plays a vital role in our life, and
  • Recycling – how to make it work


Plastic bag bans will soon be in force across most of Australia.

From July 1, Queensland and Western Australia will ban single-use, lightweight plastic bags from major retailers, bringing the states into line with the ACT, South Australia and Tasmania.

Victoria is set to follow, having announced plans in October last year to phase out most lightweight plastic bags this year. This leaves NSW as the only state without a proposed ban.

And supermarkets have followed suit. Supermarket giants Coles and Woolworths recently announced plans to phase out single-use plastic bags over the next 12 months.

The ban on plastic bags only relates to single-use plastics thinner than 35 microns or 0.035 millimetres (human hair ranges from about 60 to 120 microns).

These are typically known as high-density polyethylene bags or HDPE bags.

Woolworths currently hands out more than 3.2 billion single-use HDPE plastic bags every year, and according to a 2009 study, about 1 per cent of those, or 30 to 40 million, find their way into the environment.

But thicker, more durable plastic bags will still be available to purchase in most supermarkets.

So, what affect will these bans have on the Australian plastics industry?

The short answer is, only time will tell.

Environmentally friendly or unfriendly?

The real question is: Will a ban on plastic bags be better for the environment? Or are heavy-duty plastic bags potentially worse?

On the surface, the decision by Coles and Woolworths to remove lightweight plastic bags appears socially responsible.

But will this be the case?

If consumers continue to use heavy-duty plastic bags at the same rate as lightweight bags, it can actually be worse.

A UK Government life-cycle analysis of single-use versus reusable bags reported that heavy-duty plastic bags (low-density polyethylene or LDPE bags) need to be reused at least four times to make up for the increased greenhouse gas emissions caused by their production, when compared to single-use HDPE bags.

And heavy-duty plastics may also take longer to break down in the environment, though both will eventually end up as harmful microplastics if they enter the ocean.

In the US, plastic bag bans have had a negative impact on several fronts.

Retails sales down

In 2011, US authorities banned thin film plastic bags from being used in supermarkets and variety shops.

Subsequence studies found the ban had a significant impact on retail sales in those areas where bags were banned. However, a significant increase in sales were reported outside those regions where bans were in place.

During a one-year period, before and after the ban, the majority of stores surveyed in areas with a ban reported an overall average sales decline of nearly 6%. While the majority of respondents surveyed in areas without a ban reported an overall average sales growth of 9%. 

And the bans also had a big impact on employment.

One survey found that stores under the bag ban had experienced a 10% reduction in employment, while employment in stores outside of the ban slightly increased.

Potential impact on Australian industry

The US plastic bag manufacturing and recycling sector employs more than 30,000 workers in 349 communities across the nation, according to the American Progressive Bag Alliance, an organization representing the plastic bag manufacturing and recycling sector.

In Australia, there were 278 businesses involved in plastic bags and film manufacturing in 2016-17, according to IBIS World.

Those businesses employ more than 4,700 staff and turnover $2 billion in revenue each year. The top three suppliers are Amcor, Integrated Packaging Group (IPG) and Sealed Air Australia.

Plastic bag alternatives

In the US more attention is now focused on reusable bags. Reusable shopping bags can be made from fabric, woven synthetic fibres, or even polypropylene.

But experts warn that the reusable bag market is flooded with cheap quality, green-washing products. They warn customers to think twice before using them.

These cheap reusables are sometimes given away during promotions or sell at grocery stores for as little as 99 cents. Most experts agree that while these shopping bags are marketed as “reusable,” they are really glorified disposable bags.

This can be even more damaging to the environment than the single-use plastic shopping bag.

Recycling plastic bags

Some US reports say plastic bags are responsible for less than 1% of all litter. For instance, litter audit data from major Canadian municipalities show that plastic shopping bags are less than 1% of litter. In San Francisco, surveyors found that plastic bags consisted of 0.6% of the city's litter before a local ban was enacted.

What can be lost in the debate between bans, taxes and consumer choice at the checkout, is the fact that plastic shopping bags are fully recyclable, when disposed of properly.

However, a study conducted by Boustead Associates in the US found that only 5.2% of plastic bags are recycled. Plastic bag recycling requires a different type of infrastructure than plastic bottles and containers.

It's been reported that when people put plastic bags in their curbside bin, the lightweight film has the potential to clog machines at the recycling facilities.

Councils claim recycling comes at a big cost

The Ipswich City Council, west of Brisbane, is one of many councils across Australia now reviewing its recycling policies.

Earlier this month, the Council announced it would scrap its recycling program as it had become too costly for the city to recycle, so everything placed in yellow bins would go straight to landfill.

But that decision has since been reversed.

Ipswich Mayor Andrew Antoniolli said the Council was looking to utilise a provision in the Local Government Act which would allow the employment of a short-term recycling contractor.

"We have been upfront with the people of Ipswich, and we have proudly sparked a national debate on council waste management practice. This is an issue of global significance, and our position is strong," he said.

Queensland Environment Minister Leanne Enoch said in a statement she was pleased the Ipswich City Council had found an alternative solution to their waste management issue.

It is understood the issue will be raised at a meeting of environment ministers later this month.

"Queensland is doing its part and we are working with councils and industry on a zero-waste future.”

How recycling works in the US

In the US, consumers are asked to visit grocery chains that will collect used plastic bags and wraps their customers bring back to the store. Plastic bags must be clean and dry and not contain any food residue, paint, adhesive or stickers.

Recycling plastic bags can be turned into raw materials for fencing, decking, building and construction products, shopping carts and new bags, according to the American Chemistry Council.

Still, only 5% of plastic bags are recycled in the US and that figure is not growing.

Grocery chains have found where there are large numbers of plastic bags available, consumers have no incentive to recycle them.  

In contrast, when bag bans and fees are put in place, they show it's working to reduce waste.

What are the better options?

Some say cotton bags are the solution. Though they are water and energy-intensive to produce, estimates suggest they need to be used around 130 times to achieve a reduction in greenhouse gases.

But they are generally able to hold more items and can be used repeatedly. And they biodegrade, rather than breaking down into harmful pollutants.

A Zero Waste report prepared for the South Australian Government in 2007 found that reusable, polypropylene green bags – the sturdy shopping bags sold at most supermarkets – achieved the greatest environmental benefits when used multiple times compared to alternatives like paper or calico bags.

They estimated that if every Australian household switched to green bags, 2,200 garbage trucks would be diverted from landfill annually, 42,000 tonnes of greenhouse gases could be abated, and 50,000 litres of water saved.

Retail chain perspective

In the US, while both sides of the debate continue to state their opinions, national retail chains are somewhat quietly working to reduce waste at their stores.

In an effort to promote the use of reusable bags and keep more plastic bags out of landfills, Target gives consumers a five-cent discount for each reusable bag used at all of its stores.

Since the launch of our reusable bag program in 2009, more than 80 million reusable bags have been used instead of paper or plastic, and Target has saved the equivalent of 200 million plastic bags.

And Walmart has a goal to eliminate landfill waste generated by its US operations by 2025.

In 2010, the retail giant reduced the plastic bag waste across its global operations by about 3.5 billion bags.

Supermarket chain Kroger has a plastic recycling program where plastic bags, dry-cleaning bags and plastic shrink-wrap can be recycled in all stores. This program resulted in nearly 12 million kilos of plastic being recycled from stores and distribution centres in 2010, according to the company.

Packaging industry perspective

In a submission to the Victorian Government’s Environment and Planning Committee Inquiry into the Environment Protection Amendment (Banning Plastic Bags, Packaging and Microbeads) Bill 2016, the Australian Institute of Packaging (AIP), offered a number of alternatives to the banning of the single use plastic carry bags.

The AIP recognised the environmental concerns identified in the Bill and the need to reduce/eliminate plastic shopping bags and other plastic packaging from the litter streams and water systems.

But it questioned whether the banning of plastic bans was the most effective solution.

The AIP also expressed its concern with the proposal that makes it unlawful for retailers to sell perishable fruit and vegetables if they’re wrapped, sealed or otherwise contained in plastic or polystyrene packaging.

In its submission, the AIP said plastic packaging plays a critical role in reducing spoilage and food wastage for perishable fruit and vegetables.

It argued that the restriction would have a significant impact on the environmental and food sustainability issues.

Recycling is key

The AIP represents packaging technologists, engineers, designers and other individuals who are a part of the packaging industry in Australasia.

It agreed more focus should be made on recycling programs rather than total bans.

“In Victoria there are only two councils (Moreland & Nillumbik) out of the 87 Victorian local councils that provide households with the ability to recycle plastic bags and other flexible/soft plastic in the recycling (yellow lid) bin,” it notes.

“Households in the other 85 council areas have to dispose of the plastic bags in the general garbage (red lid) bin.

“Before banning the single use plastic carry bag, it would be a better action in the long term to review the results of Moreland and Nillumbik and work towards rolling out the recycling of the plastic bags and other flexible/soft plastic in the recycling (yellow lid) bin.”

Government should also support the REDcycle Program.

The ‘RED Group’ has undertaken extensive work on the recycling of soft plastic.

Turning plastic waste into new products

Partnering with Coles, Woolworths and some of Australia’s best known brands, the RED Group launched the REDcycle Program.

It is a world first and an innovative recycling program that diverts plastic bags and packaging from landfill and turns them into the resource used to manufacture new products.

The REDcycle program collects soft plastic packaging like bread bags, frozen vegetable bags, pasta bags, biscuit packets and sachets that consumers bring from home to the supermarket every time they shop.

The material is collected and processed by RED Group and then shipped to Australian-based manufacturer Replas where it is reprocessed into amazing new products.

More than 100 million pieces of plastic – enough to circle Australia one and a half times — has been saved from landfill by the REDcycle program in the past three years and turned into outdoor plastic products such as bollards, fencing, decking and furniture.

How plastic prevents food wastage

Also, the AIP says the banning of plastic packaging provides no alternative formats for the consumer in their handling of produce like loose fruit and vegetables.

“The lightweight plastic carry bag provides convenience and protects the range of products purchased in supermarkets from contamination, improving shelf life and food spoilage/ wastage,” it says.

“It needs to be remembered that any other form of packaging used as a substitute could also end up as litter, unless adequate collection and recovery infrastructure is put in place.

“Lightweight bags used by consumers to hold loose produce should be exempt from any plastic bag ban.”

There is currently a range of lightweight bioplastic plastic carry bags, made from renewable resources. These bags, when manufactured from a bioplastic certified to one of the composting standards, can be composted effectively in commercial composting facilities, usually in combination with green and/or food organic waste.

Energy saving

At present, however, many consumers do not have access to a kerbside collection program for organics. Another constraint on end of life recovery is that existing facilities are often wary about accepting compostable plastics because this may lead to contamination with non-compostable plastics.

The lightweight plastic carry bag, although currently made from non-renewable resources, has been shown in Life Cycle assessment studies requires 20-40% less energy to manufacture than paper carry bags at a zero recycling rate for both bags.

Plastic bags contribute 70-80% less solid waste than paper bags and this difference remains stable at all recycling rates. Atmospheric emissions for the plastic bag were 63-73% lower than the paper bag and these differences continue regardless of the recycling rate.

At a zero recycling rate the plastic bag contributed over 90% less waterborne emissions than the paper bag, in the manufacture of the materials. This difference is increased at higher levels of recycling because of the process involved in recycling paper.

Not all plastic bags are a litter risk

Also, Plastic bags used for containing fresh fruit and vegetable are not considered to be a significant litter risk as they will primarily be unpacked in the home. Not all plastic bags should be considered a litter risk.

“Plastic packaging is designed to effectively contain and protect food, or be ‘fit- for-purpose’ across the supply chain to minimize both food and packaging waste. Minimizing food waste must be the priority over litter as it accounts for a larger proportion of the life-cycle environmental impacts of the food-packaging system,” says the AIP.

The AIP recommended that rather than each state deal with the issue, legislation should be established at a national level, “based on scientific, practical and sustainable decisions.”

“The current state by state approach has resulted in a rollout of policies that have not achieved a sustainable or an environmentally balanced approach,” it said.

So, will the proposed plastic bag bans work?

While there is no suitable substitute for plastic shopping bags or a working model for recycling soft plastic bags, the removal of soft plastic from retailers may be short lived.


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