Is a charge on plastic bags the solution to our plastic pollution problem?
Australians use an estimated five billion single-use plastic bags (supb’s) per year. This sounds like a lot but this represents only about 20,000 tonnes of plastic or 0.04 percent of the waste generated in Australia per year. If all of these plastic bags go to landfill they represent just 0.1 percent of waste to landfill.
So, supb’s are an important litter problem but they are by no means the most significant waste problem. This honour is held by organic waste (food, cardboard, timber, pallets etc) which represent around 50% of all waste to landfill in Australia.
It is important we deal with supb’s for two reasons – their contribution to litter and pollution and as an iconic waste stream that generates community engagement.
But the solution for supb’s is not an industry-wide collection and recycling program. Collecting supb’s for recycling is ridiculously expensive and a waste of money relative to other material streams. One trial by the Packaging Industry found that collecting and recycling plastic bags through those wheelie bins you see at the front entrance of shopping centres, cost $4,572 per tonne. That compares to an average cost of $40 per tonne for kerbside recycling.
The simplest solution is to limit their use in the economy in the first place by adding a price (or ban), although a small charge as it has a lighter touch than an outright ban. Bans tend to be very black and white; there is no room for nuance nor for industry to adapt (unless the ban is foreshadowed in advance). A small charge makes people think twice about the bags they accept, but also encourages them to better value the bags they have.
The United Kingdom has even shown us how effective it is. When Wales mandated a charge of 5p per bag in 2011 they observed a 76 percent decline in plastic bag use in the first year. Similar observations were made in Northern Ireland in 2013, Scotland in 2014, and England in 2016. According to the UK Marine Conservation Society’s Great British Beach Clean report, the levy contributed to a 40 percent reduction in the number of plastic bags found on UK beaches.
However, plastic bags charges may be fiercely resisted.
America has seen the roll-back of supb charges and bans. Most recently, the New York State Senate passed legislation to prohibit a bag charge that had been adopted by the New York City Council.
Invariably, the resistance to bag charges comes from a combination of wanting to avoid a patchwork quilt of regulation across and within States (fair point), and from a belief that business and consumers will bear an unnecessary cost. American regulators have also faced well-funded resistance from bag manufacturers arguing that a plastic bag charge or ban will cost business and disadvantage low income shoppers.
As the UK experience demonstrates, a well-designed system leads to a large and rapid reduction in plastic bags usage and has the benefit of raising money for the community. It is also overwhelmingly popular. The answer for Australia is a national agreement on an supb charge applying in all States and requiring that the revenues raised are dedicated to community use.
Written by Mike Ritchie of MRA Consulting. MRA Consulting is Australia’s best small consultancy in recycling, waste and carbon (Inside Waste 2013, 14, 15 and 16). MRA provides services to large and small business and all levels of government. The MRA team includes engineers, planners, economists, lawyers and scientists.
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