If you stash a handful of plastic bags in the cupboard after your weekly supermarket shop, then this article is for you.

The Greens have announced an election pledge to ban the single use plastic shopping bag. Many other states and territories have already gone down that path via bans or 10 cent fees.

Whenever we debate shopping bags, images of distressed turtles and dead seabirds come to mind. The political case for banning plastic bags is easy. The priority argument is much harder.

Australians use more than six billion plastic bags a year and most of these end up in landfill. They comprise an estimated two per cent of litter.

Once in the environment they have an ecological impact, due to plastic’s persistence.

However, plastic bags are neither the biggest litter problem nor by any stretch are they the biggest waste problem.

We must get our priorities right.

From a recycling or waste management perspective, plastic bags are almost insignificant.

For all the billions of individual bags we landfill, they constitute just 20,000 tonnes of waste or 0.09 per cent of Australia’s landfill waste stream.

This is less than the waste generated by a typical small rural town in one year.

Plastic bags are inert in landfill. They cause little or no harm. Some might argue landfilling them is a waste of resources. True, but 20,000 tonnes is tiny in the scheme of things.

There are more important waste priorities.

The highest priority by far is organic waste going to landfill. Organic waste includes food, garden waste, timber, pallets, paper and cardboard.

Organic waste represents over 50 per cent of all waste we landfill, or 10 million tonnes. Put another way, organic waste is 500 times more significant (by weight) than plastic bags. It is the single largest stream going to landfill.

Organic waste in landfill is not inert. It breaks down (anaerobically) to generate methane, which unless captured leaks into the environment. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas (25 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide) and accounts for 11 million tonnes of Australian greenhouse gas emissions.

Thankfully well run landfills can capture a significant amount of methane, but across all landfills in Australia, not enough.

As such, methane’s contribution to climate change poses far bigger risks to marine ecosystems than plastic bags.

Many state and local governments are now accelerating organics recovery with infrastructure, policies, price signals and funding. This is being backed up by industry and households. More power to them.

My fear is that while arguing about bans or pricing plastic bags, we will take our eye off the main game. Others say let’s move on the “simple” things first.

I say, if we are going to ban or price plastic bags, then let’s get it done quickly.

Plastic bags are just one visible but very small piece of an important, and very large, iceberg.

Mike Ritchie is director of MRA Consulting Group.

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  1. Thank you to all who commented.

    My statements on plastic bag priority in the article were “However, plastic bags are neither the biggest litter problem nor by any stretch are they the biggest waste problem…If we are going to ban or price plastic bags, then let’s get it done quickly.”

    Yes if we are going to, we should move to ban or price plastic bags, but we must not spend a lot of political capital or time doing it. Climate change is too urgent.

    I appreciate the dialogue and I certainly agree that starting small may help us get to big. We just need to move faster than we are.

  2. There’s a thing called the intergenerational equity principle a sustainability principle and it means that we should not leave problems for other generations. The U.S EPA has said that plastic in landfills stay around for a thousand years and that breaks that principle. Also Sydney zoo have a lot of stats on what plastic bags do to animals you have to care and plastics are a real problem in the oceans. I think if we don’t ban them we should at least make people pay for them that will reduce their use as other research has shown

  3. Getting rid of plastic bags is a good easy win and for that reason – why not do it. There are other states and countries which have done so , and people get used to it quickly. (I haven’t used a single-use plastic shopping bag since 1987, so it is entirely feasible.)
    While I agree that methane from organics is a bigger problem, they should both be tackled.
    Much more money is required for organics collection and methane harvesting, along with political will and sensible education programs for this to be rolled out successfully

  4. I disagree that plastic bags should be a lower priority. However, I do agree that they are a visible and small piece of “an important, and very large, iceberg.” Banning plastic bags is an easy and relatively inexpensive win. It is really the only way to get people to change their habitual behaviour. It also raises awareness of the general issue of plastic waste, and waste in general, in our environment around the world. I think the point regarding the volume of waste from plastic bags is flawed. That is not the problem. As is stated, plastic is rather inert in landfills, the bigger problem is their environmental impact when they get into the environment. With education on this “visible” issue, comes understanding and support for bigger issues, such as organic waste.