About two years ago I wrote a post titled Protect the forests, piss off industry, win an election, and promised to at some point do my plastic bag conspiracy rant. So here it is.
In Australia for the last 4 years, there’s been a move by the big supermarket chains to do away with those environment unfriendly plastic bags. Gone are the days when they’d happily pack your food purchases into as many plastic bags as they could. Ironically enough, plastic bags only started being used about 20-25 years ago, before that we just used the trolley, or the stores provided free cardboard boxes, thus recycling the very same boxes that the food came in from the wholesalers.
So we went from environmentally friendly boxes, kindly provided gratis, to environmentally unfriendly plastic bags, kindly provided gratis, which take between 20-100 years to break down in the environment. Which brings us to now.
In order to crack down on this environmental unfriendliness, the big chains are now doing two things: selling us green reusable bags to use instead; and charging consumers for using plastic bags. At face value, this is fantastic for the environment. In reality, its a corporate conspiracy, using the issue of the environment to make a lot more money.
Let’s start with the green bags. According to Ian Kiernan, chairman of Clean Up Australia, each greeen bag will last on average 104 shops, and they can then be recycled through the big supermarket chains as well. Calculate it out, and that’s about 431 plastic bags saved per year, which isn’t going to have much impact against the roughly 13 million plastic bags used in Australia each day.
Now these bags come with a large white print on either side, which clearly advertises the supermarket you bought it from. Loud and proud, you’re now a part of the chain’s marketing. Don’t underestimate the advertising power of happy people carrying big green bags with a supermarket logo on them. This is the real benefit for stores selling the bags.
However if that weren’t enough, the green bags are actually made from non-woven polypropylene, which looks like woven cotton, but is designed to not actually break down in the environment. Polypropylene is a byproduct of oil refining, so not only is it not biodegradable, but is supported by both the depletion of fossil fuels and the creation of greenhouse gases. But don’t let that worry you too much, at least you’re announcing to the world where you’re happy to shop, and that’s gotta be important to you right?
And you want the kicker? They’re made in China, and imported by JMP Holdings, who to be fair also sell biodegradable bags, but is substantially outnumbered by the range of different non-biodegrable plastic bags they sell. To quote their web site: JMP Holdings is one of the most active importers of paper, plastic and calico/non woven packaging in Australia.
So by purchasing green shopping bags, not only are you helping your supermarket to advertise, but you’re also supporting the destruction of the environment.
Moving on to plastic bags. in 2002, the government did a study to see if there should be a governmental levi on the use of plastic shopping bags, and to prevent the introduction of such a levi, the supermarket chains, well the Australia Retailers Association who represents them, agreed to cut down plastic bag use by 25% by December 2004, and 50% by December 2005. How did they do it? By selling green bags as an alternative, and by putting their own consumer levi of 10c per bag on every plastic bag used at their stores.
So while again, at face value, they’re doing away with those nasty plastic bags, in reality all they’ve done is protect themselves from a levi by passing the levi on to consumers, and opened up a new avenue for advertising. Not really the caring for the environment image that they’re trying to promote, is it?
What we really need though, is real alternatives to plastic bags, because while the stores obviously care more about their bottom line than the environment, plastic bags are still bad. Next time you head down to your local supermarket, you know, the one pretending to care for the environment, do yourself a favour and take a walk down the isle which has plastic bags. You’ll see several shelves full of what are strangely labelled biodegradable bags. How weird is that? The very same supermarkets who say there’s no real alternative, are actually selling them in isle 5.
To be fair, biodegradable bags are more expensive than non-biodegradable plastic bags, but if you check out the prices in the aforementioned isle 5, you’ll notice that the cost difference isn’t anything near the between 2 and 10 times more expensive quoted by the supermarket chains as their excuse for not using them.
In theory, these stores could have simply replaced their environment destroying plastic bags, which they provided free of charge, with biodegradable bags. They could have even charged us 10c per bag if they wished, so long as the bags weren’t harming the environment. But instead of seeing this as an opportunity to save the environment, they see it as a way of reducing costs, by simply charging us for the same old bags they used to give away for free, preferring to sell the cheap non-biodegradable bags instead of biodegradable ones, by making a profit off the new green bags, by using consumers as billboards for advertising, and for falsely presenting themselves as green.
My advice is not to use bags. Take a box with you, cardboard is best, and indestructable plastic arguably better than a disposable bag. If you must use bags, try using an overnight bag, or something made of cotton or calico. And if you must use something like a plastic bag, then head to isle 5, purchase some biodegradable bags, and use those. Don’t use the supermarket sold green bags. Don’t use the supermarket provided (for 10c) plastic bags.
Big business. Just don’t.