If you’ve seen the devastating and heart wrenching images of birds and turtles terminally entangled by rubbish, washed up on the beach, you’re more than likely aware of the dangers of plastic bags.
While generally only used for several minutes, a plastic bag can hang around for nearly 1,000 years before it breaks down. Turtles, dolphins and whales choke or starve by confusing littered plastic bags for jellyfish, and on land plastic bags frequently kill native birds, fauna and other animals.
Every piece of plastic ever made still exists, and it’s estimated that 46,000 pieces of plastic float in every square mile of the world’s ocean. Each year, more than 100,000 animals die at the hands of plastic bags.
The good news is that change is just around the corner, thanks to initiatives such as those recently adopted in France.
France bans plastic bags
As of July 1, a ban on plastic bags being distributed at cashiers in French stores came into force. Passed as part of a 2015 energy bill, it bans “single use” plastic bags thinner than 50 micrometres from being distributed at cashiers, regardless of the volume of purchase or if the retailer charges customers for the bag.
Bakeries, butcher shops, grocery stores and pharmacies of all sizes, in addition to petrol stations, markets and supermarkets, are affected by the ban.
Why the move?
Each year, five billion plastic bags are handed out in France and another 12 billion are used in the produce section of stores (A ban against produce bags will come into action in January 2017, banning the use of plastic bags to wrap meat and fish.).
Each of these 17 billion plastic bags takes hundreds of years to biodegrade, and according to the French Environment Ministry these bags end up in the stomachs of 94% of birds in the North Sea and 86 percent of marine turtles.
When marine life comes under threat, it ultimately affects human life too. All of our oceans produce 60 percent of the oxygen we breathe, and absorb more than 20 percent of all the toxic gasses. If plastic bags poison the ocean, it’s tiny ocean plants and marine life, it in turn poisons us!
Are all plastic bags banned in France?
While a complete ban on nano-plastic bags is in place, the law does permit “bio-sourced” bags such as those made using a blend of plastic and cornstarch or potato starch. If composted by consumers, these bags will decompose in water and CO2. The use of these bags come at a cost to consumers (bags cost a few cents each compared with half a cent for conventional bags), but can you really put a price on healthier oceans?
For those wanting to do one better than bio-sourced bags, Baptiste Legay, a director in the French Ministry of the Environment’s Waste and Circular Economy Department, suggests consumers use tote bags or multi-use (thicker) plastic bags.
Are there any other benefits from banning plastic bags, aside from healthier oceans and marine life?
According to John Persenda, the owner of Sphere, the European leader in plastic films and bags, 90% of single use plastic bags are imported to France from Asia. With the new guidelines surrounding the makeup of plastic bags, this will no longer be an option for French businesses.
The new ‘bio-sourced bags only’ rule means that all imported single-use bags will start to decompose at around 26 degrees. In other words, cargoes of biosourced plastic bags from Asia that meet the new French requirements would not arrive unscathed from a journey of several weeks in a sun-heated shipping container.
As a result, the French are hoping to “re-localise” plastic bag production. Plans are on the table for several new factories in France, which producers claim will create 3,000 direct and indirect jobs. Biosourcing materials for plastic bags will also provide new markets for producers of corn, wheat and potato starch, whose importance in the paper industry is waning.
Where the rest of the world stands
The phasing out of high-density polyethylene plastic bags, otherwise known as the common plastic bag, is an issue many governments from around the world take seriously. The Bangladesh government was the first to initiate a ban back in 2002, and since then countries such as Rwanda, China, Taiwan and Macedonia have also acted by enforcing a complete ban.
Other countries, including many Western European countries and local jurisdictions, impose a fee per bag in a bid to ease the demand and encourage the use of reusable shopping bags.
Is there any chance of a total ban in Australia?
In Australia plastic bag bans exist in South Australia, Tasmania, the ACT and the Northern Territory, but NSW, Queensland and Victoria claim they are not yet ready to act. As it stands today, four billion plastic bags are used in Australia every year, and it’s estimated that about 150 million of these end up as litter.
However the issue is not going completely unnoticed, with state environment ministers from all three still-to-act states establishing a “steering group” to continue working towards reducing plastics. Two of Australia’s biggest stakeholders to be affected by a ban, Coles and Woolworths, have both expressed support for any environmental decisions made by state and federal governments.
What you can do until then
While Australia may be slow to ban plastic bag use, it doesn’t mean that you can’t start acting now. The less people using plastic bans, the lower demand there is for them, and eventually governments will wake up to the fact that most Australians don’t want to be using disposable plastic bags.
Having educated yourself on the facts, you can start by using your own reusable bags. Not only are these bags earth friendly, many of them are stylish and personable. If you have plastic bags at home, don’t just toss them away. Use them as bin liners, take them to your local dog park and donate them, or return them to your local grocery store for recycling.