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Rubbishing on about plastic bags

By Valerie Yule - posted Wednesday, 30 April 2008


It is disappointing that the State and Federal environmental leaders between them cannot come to an agreement about single-trip plastic bags - which, in their billions, are an acknowledged problem for landfill, wildlife and litter, and are made with costly petrochemicals.

All that has happened is more frowning against littering the streets. After so many inquiries, reports and recently a top-level conference, there is no common agreement on bans, levies, quotas, substitutes or “Stop” campaigns.

There are three reasons why the plastic bag may defeat our politicians.

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The first reason is that when customers bring their own bags to the supermarket checkout, they take a few seconds longer to pack and are very heavy to lift when full. These few seconds add up to big dollars for the grocery chains.

The second reason is, as most people say, “We have to have plastic bags to put our rubbish in”.

And the third reason is Peter Garrett, suggesting that levies on plastic bags would hurt poor working families. Our very own Federal Environment Minister expects people will continue to use plastic bags as before even with levies in place that are intended to discourage them.

It is possible to devise faster ways to fill customers' re-usable bags or boxes at checkouts. It is possible for check-out staff not to fill customers’ own bags too full making them too heavy for safe lifting, which a shop assistants’ spokesman worries is now happening. Other supermarkets around the world have worked out the economics of check-out service, without single-trip plastic or paper bags, to show that it can be done.

It is also possible for householders to work out how to dispose of their household rubbish without requiring so many plastic bags to put it in. Billions of dollars could be saved in environmental and resources waste with a few commonsense housekeeping tips. Without this public knowledge, campaigns against plastic bags will not work. One successful campaign did reduce the number of plastic bags taken home from supermarkets, but then it was found that sales of plastic bin-liners had gone up 30 per cent, rather spoiling the effect. Why so?

Because, everyone said, “We need plastic bags to put our rubbish in”. What could everyone do instead? Sooner rather than later, councils, landlords, builders and architects must come up with non-wasteful solutions for waste disposal, especially for multi-storey apartments. In the meantime - what can people do where they are?

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There are solutions. See here and here.

Dry rubbish needs no plastic-bagging at all before going into bins. Most kitchen scraps can feed pets and worm farms. Banana skins and tea leaves make special foods for pot-plants, camellias, roses and hostas. Cordon-bleu cooks make exquisite sauces and soups from bones and scraps. Only the remains of chicken bones need go in the bin. When these re-uses are not possible, squelchy rubbish can go into empty grocery packaging, or into plastic bags that have been re-used so often they are tatty and can end quite longish lives as containers inside the kitchen bin. Once anyone starts to re-use empty grocery packaging to hold their squelchy kitchen scraps, they suddenly realise how much of the rubbish they used to put into plastic bags was only packaging taking up space.

You don’t need plastic bin-liners when dry rubbish goes straight into the bin, and the squelchy rubbish is in packaging and retired plastic bags. The trolley-bin outside needs only a bit of cardboard or copypaper wrapping at the bottom.

Plastic bags can be stored in a bigger bag on a hook or in a shopping bag, to re-use again and again. Empty packaging can be kept in a box. Green bags and boxes can be kept in the car. This is not rocket science but it is pocket science.

On our travels abroad we can observe how, in some other places, people manage without plastic bags, and yet without litter. Some of us can remember when the first thin polyfilm plastic bags arrived innocently on our shopping scene. How was it that, before then, we had so little rubbish, collected once weekly in a little galvanised bin that the dustman could hoist on his shoulder? And now, in our suburb, households have three big trolley-bins each, two of them big enough to fit Santa - and each week plastic bags filled with kitchen rubbish can fill one bin. Some people even mock the recycling-bin’s plea for no plastic bags, because, to make their re-cycling rubbish look tidy, they put it in plastic bags too.

Like cars on freeways, rubbish can expand to fill the bins available. Even recycling is not the best solution for one-trip plastic bags. As with many other possessions, the secret is re-using.

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About the Author

Valerie Yule is a writer and researcher on imagination, literacy and social issues.

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