Banning Shopping Bags – Does it Really Work?

The problem with single use shopping bags

Scotland has done it, California, Austin Texas and Kenya has done it – but does banning plastic shopping bags really work?

Recently it was announced that Scotland and California had banned the use of disposable plastic bags, otherwise known as single use plastic, but does it really help the environment or just make us feel good?

If the example of Austin, Texas is anything to go by it is more of the latter, and less of the former.

Unfortunately, the education around why banning plastic shopping bags is even necessary in the first place is severely lacking.

The reality is, the people of Earth are severely addicted to plastic in its myriad forms – from the convenience of a disposable bag to hold our weekly shop, to the toys our children and pets play with, to food and beverage storage, chairs, tables and far too many other products to list that have infiltrated our daily lives.

Where does all the plastic from shopping bags go when they die?

The answer is landfill.

The wonderful thing about landfill is that it is very much out of sight, out of mind. We could almost go our entire lives without visiting a waste disposal facility, but I encourage you to do it….and take your kids, take your neighbours kids, heck take your neighbours as well.

Growing up on the outskirts of the city where we didn’t have regular rubbish pick ups, I remember visiting our local waste disposal facility from a young age with my parents and siblings.  The first thing to hit you was the smell, the second was the shear size of the place.

Back then it felt as though you were standing in a boundless sea of waste as far as the eye could see. Today, most of the worlds population lives in an urban environment where the rubbish is collected by the city council and the truth is their eyes never see the waste that is produced which in turn allows them to become disconnected from it.

As our planet becomes increasingly more populated by humans, we need to now more than ever be aware of how the way we live impacts the world around us.

I honestly believe that if it was compulsory for all school children to visit their local waste disposal facility once a year to see the sights and smell the smells, it would really make them think harder about the disposable culture that has taken hold of our society.

Meanwhile back in Texas…..

In 2013 the Austin City Council decided to approve a plastic bag ban – an insightful and bold move from the council and a big win for all of the anti-plastic bag campaigners who pushed for it to happen.  It was assumed that the environmental benefits of banning single use plastic bags in the city would have far reaching effects and in some ways it has, but not all of them have been desirable.

Just two years following the ban, a study commissioned by the council found that instead of single use plastic bags being thrown away, heavy duty reusable, virgin plastic bags or so called eco bags were now finding their way into landfill and almost in the same numbers as light-weight single use plastic bags before the ban.

Rather than the residents changing their behaviour and using reusable shopping bags over and over again, the councils findings discovered that now reusable eco bags were being treated like single use bags. This was worse, because the carbon footprint of  the heavy duty virgin polypropelene reusable bags was exponentially higher than the disposable versions.

It was found, people would forget to take their reusable bags with them to the shops and found themselves forced to purchase the cheap virgin plastic reusable bags most supermarkets are so fond of these days.  This led to people quickly amassing a glut of “reusable” bags that were only getting used once and then thrown away.

Using Reusable Shopping Bags does carry some responsibility. The principle behind going to the expense of purchasing high quality reusable shopping bags, is that you will use them year in and year out whether you are doing grocery or clothes shopping. To start with, this does take some little effort, but very soon it forms a habit and it is hard to imagine life without keeping a reusable shopping bag on you.

So does Austin’s example mean we shouldn’t bother trying to ban plastic bags in our own cities and councils?  Of course not. However, we should learn from it and I believe better education around why the bans are needed, as well as the behavioural changes required in our society need to be clearly defined to really have the positive environmental impact we all hope for.