As of May 4, 2009, the use of thin plastic bags in supermarkets became officially banned in the state of South Australia, with the growing preference for green bags being encouraged. Specifically, the ban applies to plastic bags that have handles that are made with polyethylene polymer of less than 35 microns in thickness. Essentially, this means the thin, unbranded plastic bags you often see in supermarkets are no longer allowed, but the thicker, branded types of ’boutique’ plastic bags seen in most department stores and specialty stores are still there for the taking.
The reason for the ban relates to the harmful environmental effects of plastic in general. Since plastic is not biodegradable or compostable, it remains in the environment once it has been disposed of. Even if the plastics are broken down, small plastic particles still remain which can be ingested by wildlife, resulting in sickness and even death for the creatures affected. Additionally, the manufacturing of plastic bags involves a process which burns fossil fuels and releases pollutants into the atmosphere, contributing to global warming.
Fortunately, there are many alternatives to plastic bags, including compostable bags which, as the name suggests, can be used as compost when they’re finished with; barrier bags (also known as foil bags); paper bags, which are one of the cheaper alternatives to plastic bags; boutique bags, which refer to the thicker, department store-style plastic bags we mentioned earlier; and sturdy bags, such as the environmentally-friendly green bags that are becoming increasingly popular in supermarkets around Australia.
One of the most popular reusable bags that are being utilised are jute bags. Jute is a naturally biodegradable and compostable fibre taken from the jute plant, which is mostly found in Bangladesh and, to a lesser extent, India and Thailand. It has excellent tensile strength, making it extremely sturdy, as well as better breathability and low extensibility. Additionally, aside from being biodegradable and compostable, the production process of jute is also significantly better for the environment, as the energy consumption used in this process is very low.
Research has shown that, once the bans were introduced in South Australia, nine out of 10 shoppers began bringing reusable bags with them whenever they shopped for groceries. This was a significant increase from the six out of 10 from before the ban was in place. Most shoppers carry anywhere between eight and 10 reusable bags with them whenever they go to the supermarket and, when surveyed, six out of 10 people said they believed the ban was having a positive impact on reducing landfill. Many companies have taken the opportunity to create promotional bags for use in the supermarkets.
The other states and territories in Australia are now being encouraged to follow South Australia’s lead in implementing a ban on thin plastic bags in supermarkets. It’s not a ban that can be put in place straight away; there would need to be a period of adaptation where there were no fines associated but where supermarkets were encouraged to implement new measures, as was the case in South Australia. Some states and territories are also looking at the possibility of introducing a levy associated with plastic bags.