But it also highlights a wider problem: Australia’s undying appetite for single-use plastics, which appears to have only increased in recent years despite a wave of new laws cracking down on their use.
In fact, the demand is apparently so great that established recycling initiatives can no longer keep up.
The Australian government has called on supermarket giants Coles and Woolworths to come up with an alternative soft plastics recycling scheme.
But environmental scientist and conservationist Dr Paul Harvey says a much bigger shift is needed, where recycling becomes “the last line of thought” in the fight against plastic waste.
A resource-intensive process, recycling soft plastics is also complicated by impurities introduced along the way, such as food scraps left inside plastic bags.
“The main thought process should be: how can I avoid this in the first place?” Harvey told 9news.com.au.
It comes after New South Wales became the latest Australian jurisdiction to ban single-use shopping bags on June 1, four years after supermarket giants Coles and Woolworths voluntarily phased out their use nationwide. .
Yet total plastic consumption in Australia remains shockingly high.
That’s several kilograms ahead of the next offender – the United States – and nearly four times the global average.
Recent initiatives by governments and retailers, such as banning single-use bags, have yet to see a measurable impact on these numbers.
According to the National Plastics Plan released by the Australian government last year, Australians consume 70 billion pieces of soft and “crumple” plastics, such as plastic bags and food wrap, every year.
This equates to approximately 2700 soft plastic items per person.
Despite the growing popularity of recycling programs such as the one run by REDcycle, in 2020 only 12% of all Australian plastic waste was recycled.
Most of it has been sent to landfill, where it can take up to 1,000 years to decompose, releasing potentially toxic substances into soil and water.
Each year, an additional 130,000 tons seep into the waterways, the equivalent in weight of around 130 cargo ships.
The effects on marine life are devastating.
So where did we go so wrong?
The first wave of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 caused many reuse and recycling initiatives to be suspended amid shutdowns and heightened fears over surface contamination.
Cafes have stopped accepting reusable coffee cups, Woolworths has ended its “checkout” service which obviated the need for shopping bags in home deliveries and many bulk fresh produce have disappeared from store shelves. supermarkets, replaced by alternatives wrapped in plastic.
Although new research has demonstrated that surface contact COVID-19 infection remains extremely rare, it is a trend that has been slow to reverse.
So, have government bans on single-use plastic bags and other single-use plastics actually achieved the desired goal?
Harvey says the benefits of a ban on plastic bags remain “questionable”, as long as their heavy plastic alternatives remain allowed.
Still, these bags look a lot like their lightweight counterparts and are given away for free at many retailers and take-out stores.
“It’s a bit of greenwashing in a way — this idea of going from light plastic bags to heavy plastic bags,” Harvey said.
He notes that, bag for bag, heavy bags are actually considerably worse for the environment.
“They’re heavier, they’re thicker, so there’s more material,” he said.
“They are still made from materials derived from fossil fuels to make the polymer.
“And the thicker the product, the longer it lasts.”
Previously among the biggest producers of single-use plastic bags, Woolworths and Coles say their bag bans have taken 3 billion and 1.6 billion plastic bags out of circulation each year since their introduction in 2018.
But these figures do not take into account the new plastic waste introduced in the form of heavy plastic bags on sale at 15 cents.
Woolworths claims to put 9,000 tonnes of these bags into circulation each year, offsetting a substantial proportion of the estimated 15,000 to 18,000 tonnes of its weighed single-use plastic bags.
“Our reusable plastic bags have been introduced to help customers adjust to the removal of single-use plastic bags from our stores,” a Woolworths spokesperson said.
Coles has so far declined to announce similar plans, instead focusing on a single-use fresh produce bag removal trial currently underway at its ACT stores, which it says will save 11 tonnes of plastic to landfill every year.
Yet despite action by major retailers, state governments remain reluctant to back them up with tougher legislation.
But Australia’s two largest states, NSW and Victoria, currently have no plans to do the same.
The NSW Environmental Protection Agency told 9news.com.au that while it was “pleasant” that Woolworths chose to phase out heavy bags, it would “not review” such a decision until 2024″ to determine whether phasing out is appropriate at that time.”.
“The EPA will monitor the success of this action before determining if future mandatory disposal is necessary,” a spokesperson said.
Harvey believes the reluctance is due to fears of a drop in retail sales, as well as resistance from oil and gas companies that supply the raw materials used in plastics.
However, Harvey remains optimistic about new plastics legislation targeting things like microbeads and polystyrene containers.
“With the majority of single-use plastics now banned, there are currently no other single-use plastics on the market that can replace them,” he notes.
“Fast food restaurants will therefore have to switch to cardboard or bamboo products.”
Australian marsupial listed as endangered
With the future of soft plastic recycling in Australia now so uncertain, the true scale of our single-use plastic consumption will be more evident than ever.
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