Australia cuts plastic bag use by 80% in 3 months after supermarket ban

Australia's two largest supermarkets led the ban, which has so far prevented some 1.5 billion plastic bags from entering the environment.

  • The ban was led by the private sector, though several Australian states have banned single-use plastic bags.
  • Worldwide, more than 30 countries and two U.S. states have banned single-use plastic bags.
  • Kroger, the largest supermarket chain in the U.S., recently announced plans to phase-out plastic bags by 2025.

The decision by Australia's two largest supermarkets to ban plastic bags three months ago wasn't exactly well received. At Woolworths, sales slowed during the first few weeks as customers adjusted. The rivaling Coles supermarket began giving away reusable plastic bags for free, but then started charging for them, which angered shoppers and soon caused the chain to reverse course and resume its free-giveaway program.

It was a rocky start. But three months later Australia reports an 80 percent reduction in plastic bag consumption, a cut that kept as many as 1.5 plastic bags from entering the environment, according to Australia's National Retail Association.

Several Australian states have banned or plan to ban plastic bags, however the recent reductions were brought by the private sector.

"Retailers deserve an enormous amount of cudos for leading the way on one of the most significant changes to consumer behavior in generations and we also applaud shoppers for embracing this environmental initiative," said NRA Manager of Industry Policy David Stout. "Indeed, some retailers are reporting reduction rates as high as 90 per cent."

At least 32 countries have banned single-use plastic bags, according to ReuseThisBag. In the U.S., California and Hawaii have bans in place, and similar laws are on the books in cities such as Austin, Chicago and Boston, while shoppers in Washington, D.C. pay extra for plastic bags.

In the private sector, Whole Foods did away with plastic bags in 2008, and now offers a discount to shoppers who bring their own reusable bags. Kroger, America's largest grocery chain, recently announced its plan to phase-out single-use bags by 2025.

​Plastic bags and the environment

After a plastic bag is used—typically only once and for about 12 minutes—it's far more likely to end up in a landfill, ocean or on the side of the road than it is in a recycling center. Even when bags do make it to recycling centers, the process isn't exactly efficient: Recycling one ton of plastic bags costs about $4,000, but the recycled product can be sold for only $32, according to the Clean Air Council.

Plastic bags are also one of the most common sources of debris found in ocean cleanups, and it's estimated that littered plastic bags kill about 100,000 animals every year.

​Paper or plastic?

Since their introduction in the 1970s, plastic bags have become the default choice for both shoppers and businesses worldwide, mainly because they're cheaper to produce and easier to handle than paper bags. Some people believe paper bags are better for the environment, but that's wrong on most metrics:

  • Paper production emits more air pollution
  • Paper bag production consumes four times more energy, including three times the water, than making a plastic bag
  • Paper bags account for more solid waste
  • Paper bag recycling is inefficient, often taking more energy than it would to make a new bag

Still, considering reusable bags are by far the best option in terms of the environment, the best answer to the "paper or plastic" question is neither.

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