By Emily Hay, 7 th October 2018.
On July 1 st , the major supermarkets implemented their new policy of banning single use plastic shopping bags. One of the alternative bags provided for sale at the checkout is called a ‘Bag for Good’, costing 99 cents, made from polypropylene. This bag is, in effect, a new incarnation of the ‘Green bag’, which became known to Australians in 2002.
The ‘Bag for Good’ is strong, holding 15 – 20 kgs, stable due to a stiff plastic base insert that makes supermarket checkout packing quick and easy, and practical, easily fulfilling the requirement of being a shopping bag that is claimed to be an improvement on a single use plastic bag.
But are they good for the environment?
This blog will discuss the pros and cons of the ‘Bag for Good’, from an environmental perspective and also from a customer perspective.
The ‘Bag for Good’ is certainly an improvement on a single use plastic bag – it will not blow away, so is unlikely to end up in waterways or in the ocean. And it will not be mistaken for a jelly fish and get eaten by a turtle. So far, so good. They can be recycled, with supermarkets providing bins in collaboration with REDcycle.
They are relatively cheap; provided people only buy them once and don’t forget to bring them back for subsequent shopping trips.
However these types of bags have been available globally for in excess of twenty years – there is now a wealth of research and data on costing, consumer behaviour, cost to the environment and how beneficial they are. The main concern with the ‘Bag for Good’ is in order for it to be favourable to the environment and offset the cost of the thicker materials, energy used in manufacturing, transport, distribution, collection and recycling, it must be
used for at least one hundred times. This equates roughly to once per week for two years.
Keeping this in mind leads to the next issue: as shopping generally involves food, the ‘Bag for Good’ needs to be washed, at least occasionally; otherwise they harbour bacteria, leading to cross contamination. The problem with washing the bags is not that they do not come out clean and free of bacteria, but that even one wash puts a strain on the fabric which then significantly reduces their life span.
As the ‘Bag for Good’ is only guaranteed for one hundred uses, according to their Chinese manufacturer, this leaves a slim chance of reaching the target goal of a minimum of one hundred uses, given that in their lifetime they will need to be washed at least a few times.
The next issue that must be raised is the concept of a ‘Bag for life’, as promoted by Josh Frydenberg, then federal Minister for the Environment, on July 1st. Singing the praises of ‘Bag for Good’, Mr Frydenberg happily declared that the great thing about these bags was that they would be replaced, no questions asked, as soon as they showed any signs of wear and tear. This contradicts well established research that the bags must be used for at least one hundred times in order to negate their carbon footprint and cost to the environment. Woolworths commissioned a report by the Sustainable Packaging Alliance in 2009 that declared exactly this finding, and yet they are promoting this policy of replacement, without any mention of needing to be used a hundred times. According to the report if a Green bag is used only fifty times, the impact on global warming is greater than a single use plastic bag.
Perhaps they are more concerned with sales?
From a customer perspective, a quick no-questions-asked replacement bag is great. From an environmental perspective, where the crucial deciding factor on whether a bag is a positive asset as environmental shopping bag, it is a disaster.
In summary, the ‘Bag for Good’ is unlikely to be a win for the environment in the long term. In addition to needing to be used a minimum of one hundred times, it must also be recycled, otherwise it is a much bulkier bag adding to landfill and ending up as a wasted resource.
To look at this problem from a historical viewpoint, in 2002 the environmental push against plastic bags resulted in the Government putting pressure on the Australian Retailers Association by promising either a ban or a levy on plastic bags – the solution was the ‘Green’ bag (predecessor to the ‘Bag for Good’). The importing and sales of millions of these bags was hugely successful initially at reducing plastic bags, and particularly lucrative for the supermarkets and importers thereof. But people kept forgetting to bring their bags, however in true Australian enthusiasm for a cause, bought more…and more. Then federal Environment Minister Ian Campbell was quoted as saying “I think I have bought more of these reusable bags than any person on the planet.”
The bags were hailed as the great saviour from using plastic bags, an important step apparently. Sound familiar? By 2005, the momentum had dissipated, and most people went back to using single use plastic bags, and less than 4% of the Green bags were recycled – the rest went to landfill.
So what is different now?
It is sixteen years later, people are much more aware of the impact of plastic bags on the environment and particularly in the ocean. Single use plastic bags have just been banned of course, or at least from the supermarkets, which must be hailed as progress. The point must be made, once again that NSW is the last state to resist introducing a bag ban. Recycling and closed loop production is now an accepted concept – there was minimal recycling available in 2002. The big question is, will there be a repeat of 2003 – 2004, where people got tired of purchasing and using ‘Green bags’ and slipped back into using plastic bags, which were free? Is 15 cents enough to make the average consumer be motivated to buy a better bag?
Point to note: the best reusable shopping bag is one that is well made, that has a proven record of lasting for at least one hundred, if not many hundreds of times, and has a firm commitment from the producer to recycle them once they wear out.
The way I see it is that once again, most of the supermarkets are making decent profits from reusable shopping bags. As someone who is contacted on almost a daily basis by manufacturers of reusable bags in China, India, Bangladesh, Vietnam, take your pick, I have a boots on the ground knowledge of pricing. The supermarkets claim to be deeply hurt by these kinds of accusations, and after all, they must run viable and profitable businesses to satisfy shareholders etc. However, their product lines are food and groceries, not reusable bags, aren’t they? And particularly in a setting where the need for bags is unavoidable, it all seems a bit wrong.
The replacement policy for the ‘Bag for Good’ does fly in the face of profits admittedly, but when you look at Australian consumer behaviour, past and present, where forgetfulness and complacency are in existence, the continued sales of such bags is highly likely, as people forget to bring their bags, and want to do the right thing for the environment.
Call me a pessimist or a realist: the issue of shopping bags, in Australia, is going through yet another cycle. It is hoped that the outcome this time around will be better than last time, and bags such as the ‘Bag for Good’ will be part of the solution and not part of the problem, as can be expected given it is almost impossible to use them enough times before they fall apart.
The Sustainable Packaging Alliance Ltd 2009, Environmental impacts of shopping bags for Woolworths Ltd, Dandenong, VIC.
Author Emily Hay is the owner and creator of Ecosilk Bags and has been working to provide better alternatives to plastic bags since 1999.