Plastic Bags

Reuse, Reduce, RecyclePlastic Bags cause significant environmental harm. Each year Australians use 3.9 billion plastic bags, which can have a terrible impact on aquatic species and local wildlife. Plastic bags can trap birds or, if eaten by animals, cause death.

There are many things we can do to significantly reduce the number and impact of plastic bags that we use.  


What can I do to reduce my use of plastic bags?

  • If you only purchase 1 or 2 items ask yourself, do you need a bag at all?
  • You can take your own bags or buy reusable bags for your shopping. Some retailers also offer recycled cardboard boxes for customers to use.
  • When using reusable bags, place them back in the car as soon as you have finished with them so they will be handy for next time.

Where can I get a reusable bag for my shopping?

You can buy reusable bags at all leading supermarkets and many homewares stores as well – there is now so much choice in terms of colour and style you can make a real fashion statement by using your own reusable bags. Or better yet - make your own unique fashion statement by creating your own out of old material, unwanted clothing or other scraps.

What are the benefits of reusable bags?

  • Polypropylene 'Go Green' bags (available at most supermarkets) hold twice as many items as plastic bags.
  • Reusable bags are easy to carry as they have comfortable handles.
  • Polypropylene and other calico or cotton reusable bags will not burst under the weight of heavy shopping items such as tins or soft drinks.
  • The plastic bags you don't use don't have to be produced, recycled or disposed of. Every time you use a reusable bag, you help make the world safer for wildlife, and save resources for future generations.

What can I do with the plastic bags I already have at home?

  • You can reuse plastic bags you have accumulated at home as garbage bin liners, for clothing storage, for carrying wet things, for freezing food, or to pick up after pets.
  • Take your plastic check-out bags to retailers such as Coles or Woolworths who participate in the plastic REDcycle Program. Remember that plastic bags cannot be placed in your yellow lidded household recycling bin or your green lidded organics bin.

What is the REDcycle Program?

The REDcycle Program provides a way for consumers to keep plastic bags and packaging out of landfill. The program offers over 830 collection points in Australia where consumers can drop off a large range of plastic bags and soft plastic packaging. It is easy to access - simply collect your soft plastics at home, take them with you when you do a grocery shop, and drop them off at Coles or Woolworths when you do your grocery shop.

There is a huge range of items accepted, including (but not limited to) plastic bags, Australia Post satchels, plastic film wrap from grocery items (eg toilet paper packaging), cling wrap, biscuit bags, cereal box liners and bubble wrap. As long as the soft plastic passes a scrunch test (it can be scrunched into a ball), it should be accepted. For a full list of the items accepted, please go to the REDcycle Program website.

What happens to the soft plastic recovered through the REDcycle Program?

Collected plastic is returned to RED Group's facility for initial processing, then delivered to Victorian manufacturer Replas. It then undergoes processing into the a huge range of recycled-plastic products, including items such as fitness circuits, outdoor furniture, signage, and more.

How many plastic bags are used in Australia?

Australians currently use around 3.9 billion plastic bags every year, the majority of these come from supermarkets.Combine the number of bags we use every year with the time it takes for them to break down and you have a major environmental problem.

What is the life span of a plastic bag?

A person's use of a plastic check-out bag can be counted in minutes - however long it takes to get from the shops to their homes. Plastic bags however, can take between 20 and 1000 years to break down in the environment.

What are plastic bags made from?

There are 2 types of plastic bags:

  1. High density polyethylene (HDPE) - light-weight, 'singlet' bags which are predominantly used in as check-out bags in supermarkets and for fresh produce, take-away food and other non-branded applications.
  2. Low density polyethylene (LDPE) - heavier, boutique style bags that are generally branded and used to carry higher value goods.

What do plastic bags cost?

It is estimated that plastic bags add an extra $850 million in costs annually to retailers in Australia. Although plastic bags may be 'free of charge' at many shops, this price is built into the product cost. In Australia, the annual average cost per household for plastic shopping bags is estimated at $10-15 per year.

What are the problems with plastic bags?

Plastic bags are a contaminant in the Bathurst Regional Council kerbside recycling service. All recycling collected through the fortnightly service is taken to Orange to a Materials Recycling Facility (MRF) where the first level of sorting is done by hand.

Workers at MRF are sorting through tonnes of material an hour and don't have time to open bags to find out what’s inside. Your plastic bags could be filled with recyclable material like glass or plastic bottles or aluminium cans. Or they could be full of contaminants like food scraps, plastic wrap or unwanted wine glasses. Even worse, they could be full of dirty or dangerous material like dirty nappies or medical equipment. Since its too dangerous and time consuming to open and sort the bags, they have to be removed from the recycling stream and thrown into the rubbish. That means valuable resources will not be reclaimed. Instead they will be wasted in landfill.

The next issue with plastic bags is that they interfere with the automatic sorting machines. Conveyor belts feed the recycling into rotating tunnels, onto spinning wheels and past magnets and eddy currents to separate the plastic, glass, paper, aluminium and steel cans. Plastic bags cannot be sorted from other materials by existing machinery. Instead, they get caught in the conveyor belts and jam spinning wheels and can bring the entire sorting station to a halt. The bags then need to be found and removed by hand - a time consuming process that reduces the overall efficiency of the MRF.

How do plastic bags affect wildlife?

The real impact of plastic bag litter is felt on wildlife both in the marine environment and in rural areas.Tens of thousands of whales, birds, seals and turtles are killed every year from plastic bag litter in the marine environment as they often mistake plastic bags for food such as jellyfish. On land, plastic bag litter can block drains and trap birds. They also kill livestock. One farmer near Mudgee NSW, carried out an autopsy on a dead calf and found 8 plastic bags in its stomach. The loss of this calf cost the farmer around $500.Plastic bags, once ingested, cannot be digested or passed by an animal so it stays in the gut. Plastic in an animal's gut can prevent food digestion and can lead to a very slow and painful death.As plastic bags can take up to 1000 years to break down, once an animal dies and decays after ingesting plastic, the plastic is then freed back into the environment to carry on killing other wildlife.

Plastic Bags as litter

Approximately 30 to 50 million plastic bags enter the environment as litter in Australia annually. Not all litter is deliberate. 47% of wind borne litter escaping from landfills is plastic - much of this is plastic bags.It has been estimated that it costs governments, businesses and community groups over $4 million per annum to clean up littered plastic shopping bags.

What is the Australian government doing to reduce plastic check-out bags?

The South Australian, Northern Territory and Australian Capital Territory governments have banned lightweight single-use plastic bags.  This means that retailers in those State/Territories cannot sell or give away this type of plastic bag.

By reducing plastic check-out bags isn't that just going to increase the sale of garbage bags as many people reuse their shopping bags as kitchen bin liners?

The South Australian government estimated that there are almost 400 million less plastic bags in SA every year as a result of their plastic bag ban, introduced in 2009. 

What can I use for my garbage bin instead of reusing my plastic check-out bags?

Use old newspapers to line your garbage bin or wrap your rubbish in, or don't use a bin liner at all.

Use a compost, worm farm, or your green organics kerbside bin for your food and garden waste. This can reduce the amount of waste in your rubbish bin by up to 50%.

TIP - Whilst preparing food, have a few sheets of newspaper laid out on your bench top. Put your fruit or vegetable waste straight onto the laid out newspaper and wrap once finished. This can go straight into your compost. If you do not have a compost bin, place the wrapped vegetable waste in your garbage bin - it will then break down naturally in landfill.

Buy non-degradable garbage bags at the supermarket. Purchased bin liners are generally larger than shopping bags and thus require less frequent emptying. Their use will result in reduced plastic use overall, as a large single garbage bag carries more waste than a single use plastic check-out bag.

What about biodegradable plastic check-out bags?

The focus is on reducing the billions of plastic shopping bags used by Australians every year. We don't want Australians to substitute the habit of using billions of shopping bags with billions of biodegradable bags.Planet Ark believes the best current option is for people to use long-life reusable bags however in some instances you may need a disposable bag option. In this instance, a biodegradable bag is the best option.

Source: Planet Ark