Banning The Bag: How to survive without plastic bags
The phase-out of single-use plastic bags has finally begun.
Preparing ahead of a statewide ban of plastic bags in Queensland from July 1, Woolworths has removed single-use bags from select stores across three states. This will continue rolling out over the month of April before Coles joins in at the end of the month, and ultimately they're removed from all stores by the end of June.
This follows on from South Australia's statewide ban in 2009, ACT and the Northern Territory's in 2011, and Tasmania in 2013. Both Western Australia and Victoria will also be banning plastic bags in 2018.
Fortunately, Woolworths are banning bags across all their retail stores, regardless of state laws as NSW are yet to join the ban. I'm so thankful that after heavy campaigning, Woolworths are actually taking a bit of a leadership stance on the incredibly important issue of single-use plastics.
Other countries in the world that have plastic bag laws in place that are either an outright ban, an added tax or a requirement they be biodegradable plastic include Ireland, China, India, Malaysia, Indonesia, England, Kenya, South Africa, Germany, Cambodia, Rwanda, Morocco + more!
But if you've been using single-use plastic bags all this time, you might be a bit confused about what to do next. Most criticisms I saw in response stem from people's concern over having to now buy bin bags. There's a lot of outrage about having to pay. Yet, is this a real cause for concern in the face of such an international disaster as extreme plastic pollution? And doesn't the fact that so many other states and countries have already banned the bag prove its completely doable? The oceans will contain more plastic than fish within the next one to two decades, after all. Either way, we know that we don't use as many bin bags as we use plastic bags. Plastic bags are one of the top four sources of single-use trash.
Even with the other statewide bans, Australians consume about five billion plastic bags per year with almost four billion of those bags ending up in landfill. Another fifty million are found to enter directly into nature as litter. Where are the other billion plastic bags we produce annually but are not accounted for in these stats? Hmm. Good question for you to ponder on. (Some stats pulled from Clean Up Australia.) When you use one bin bag per week but bring home your shopping in twelve plastic bags, the numbers just don't add up to justify them.
But most importantly, as I'll demonstrate below, bin bags are actually optional. If you're concerned, just consider how the rest of the world manages to dispose of waste without the plastic bags we use in Queensland. There are alternatives, which I will delve into.
This blog was created to address some of the problems that come up when ditching single-use plastic bags. I hope if you think it's impossible, you come out the end of this blog post a little more confident in your ability to limit plastic waste.
What can you possibly use in the supermarket now? There are actually a ton of options that suit your varied needs. I've selected a few from Biome Eco Stores to show you how widespread the choices are.
Ideal for farmers markets and more casual shopping. Baskets are easy to keep in your car and just throw over your arm when you get there.
These recycled plastic bags can be stuffed into their small pouch with a carabiner. This means they fit in handbags and the door of your car, but unfold to fit 18kg of groceries. A good option if you really need a lot of bags, and infinitely more practical and easy to use than single-use plastic.
Real Green Bag
While the "green" bags sold in supermarkets have many ethical issues around the question of how "green" they are, there are real sustainable alternatives! These bags are made from biodegradable jute (a fibre similar to hemp or flax). This particular bag is also made responsibly by a Bangaldeshi NGO.
Jute Carry All
This is a slightly fancier jute shopping bag. Different to the green bags, this one is better designed to double as a handbag and be carried over the shoulder. Great for markets or spontaneous shopping trips. It's also huge and high-quality, so with a higher price point it should get a lot of use.
Cotton String Bag
These are what I personally use when traveling. Completely collapsible, they can slip into a tiny handbag, but stretch to fit enough for a single persons shopping haul per bag. Cheap, organic and aesthetically pleasing.
I couldn't make this blog without touching on single-use plastic produce bags. Read my post on #PlasticFreeProduce here. If we're shifting towards supermarkets without any wasteful plastic, what the heck are we meant to use?
The first tip is to simply... go without! I did this for years and years (and years!) before I ever saw someone using a reusable produce bag on social media and went looking for them online. Few things genuinely need produce bags. A handful of dates? Yes, that needs to be in a bag. Button mushrooms? Yep, those too. But a bunch of bananas? A single eggplant? Two apples? Nah, you can skip the bag completely.
You can upcycle some fabric you already own, which is the most sustainable option before buying something new. Old t-shirts, sheets, tablecloths, whatever it is! Or purchase small pieces of fabric from your typical craft store. This is one step I found too tricky while moving house every few months because I couldn't invest in something like a sewing machine to make my own reusables, but for many people, this is a great option! Got a friend with a machine you can borrow? Live somewhere where you can borrow a machine, like Thread Den in Melbourne? You don't need to buy a machine to stitch together some bags. 1 Million Women have a tutorial here.
My first produce bags were made from mesh, which is great for being able to see what's in them at the checkout and storing produce that needs to keep dry. The best thing is that heaps of small businesses sell them on Etsy, so you can support a hobbyist which is my favourite way to spend money.
A popular option is cotton produce bags. They can be made in a cotton mesh or solid fabric. These solid cotton produce bags are great for grains and other items you desperately need bags for. Rice, nuts, seeds, spinach, whatever you like! By buying organic cotton, you can use a completely safe, biodegradable, and the ones I've linked below are made ethically in India with organic cotton.
The final option on my list is RPET produce bags. This option is interesting due to the fact that these bags that reduce plastic are literally made from single-use plastic waste. It's a way to keep this excess plastic out of landfill. While we now have concerns over plastic items in the wash, you can avoid using your bags for dirty products or buy something like a microfibre washing bag (Guppyfriend) or laundry ball (Cora Ball) that catches up to 99% of plastic fibres - which is a feasible option if you already own polyester and have to wash plastic anyway.
Now we'll tackle the most frequent criticism of the ban, based off conversations I've seen on Facebook. What the heck do you do with a bin if you don't get free, petroleum-based plastic bags from supermarkets?
I'll start with the most effective step, although it's a little harder to access. The most important thing we should be doing as communities, is encouraging composting. While it's not incredibly easy today, there are societal changes we can make to normalise it and make it more accessible in the near future.
Food waste is a huge problem, because throwing food into general trash is a real environmental problem. One third of all food produced is thrown out without being eaten, and half of all fruit and vegetables (Sources here.). This food waste creates 8% of all greenhouses gases, and emits almost as much gas as the country of China. The best thing we could do to avoid waste and to keep our bins clean and dry, therefore eliminating the need for bin bags, would be to compost our scraps. Without wet, smelly food decomposing in our bins, we wouldn't need to line them with plastic. Just like we don't line recycling bins.
So while most councils don't offer compost pick ups, we have a few other options: Composting in our own backyard, giving our compost to community gardens, giving our compost to someone nearby that will use it for their own garden. You can keep a fully-contained kitchen compost bin that fits on your bench or under the sink, and after a few weeks bury the compost in a hole if you don't have access to a compost heap. If you don't have anywhere to dispose of compost, try reaching out on social media or Gumtree to see if anybody nearby would appreciate it.
Other ways to avoid food waste in your bins include making your vegetable stock with your peelings and scraps, and avoiding all animal products which can't be used in compost and can only go to landfill.
You are able to put trash in a bin without a plastic liner. The receptacle holds the waste just as well. This works simply by washing out the bin, something most do anyway due to leaks. Whether you compost or not, naked bins especially work if you sort your recycling correctly so no wet rubbish is put in with dry packaging that should be in recycling, and you take your bin out regularly. A smaller bin carried out more than once per week could avoid the issue of foods rotting and smelling in your garbage. Even if you do manage to compost food waste, you may have non-recyclable waste with food on it, wet products like sponges, and items like sanitary items or nappies to contend with. But even that wet waste can be combatted by only buying biodegradable items, using reusable sanitary products and nappies, and generally limiting the trash you produce. Whether you change your consumption habits or not, emptying the kitchen bin directly into the wheelie bin is an easy fix which takes about three extra minutes per week to rinse it out.
Lining your bin with leftover newspaper is another common plastic-free hack. Do you get the newspaper delivered? If you don't, I bet you know someone that does who just throws them out afterwards. Ask around your workplace and friends. Lining your bin with secondhand newspaper works to protect the bin itself from wet waste and avoid having to rinse it out so often, while still avoiding using plastic or producing any new resources just to hold the trash. Here is a tutorial.
If the above options just don't work for you, maybe it's a workplace, the final thing you can try is biodegradable plastic. The attached biodegradable bin bags are made of cornstarch, compostable polyester and vegetable oil. "Our bags are fully certified to EU OK Compost and US standards to be 100% biodegradable and 100% compostable. They contain no polyethylene." While not a perfect solution, the bags breathe a bit more and allow the rubbish inside of the bags to biodegrade at a faster rate where typical bin bags never biodegrade and trap the rubbish inside. If filled with biodegradable waste and disposed of correctly, the bags can biodegrade in 10-45 days. However, if sent to landfill, their ability to decompose is diminished and they're only a marginally better option than conventional plastic. But if plastic is needed - this is definitely the option to go for!
Banning the single-use plastic bag is a huge, monumental step. I'm grateful the day is finally arriving. But it's not the end. From here we work on the produce bags, other forms of excessive plastic packaging of produce and shelf items, and of course we work on promoting composting to make it easier for everyone to participate. We need councils, community groups and individuals onboard with coming up with more commonsense ways of buying produce and disposing of waste.