Plastics are made from non-renewable natural resources such as crude oil, gas and coal. According to the 2002 Nolan ITU Report for Environment Australia on Plastic Shopping Bags - Analysis of Levies and Environmental Impacts; just 8.7 plastic checkout bags contain enough embodied petroleum energy to drive a car 1 kilometre.
Plastic bags are recyclable. If plastic is not recycled, this embodied energy is lost from the resource chain.
Use of Plastic Bags in Australia
Plastic bags have been around for 30 years now. It is estimated world wide that 1 trillion bags are used and discarded every year.
Australians use 3.92 billion plastic bags a year, that's over 10 million new bags being used every day. An estimated 3.76 billion bags or 20,700 tonnes of plastic are disposed of in landfill sites throughout Australia every year. Australians dump 7,150 recyclable plastic bags into landfills every minute or 429,000 bags every hour.
It is estimated that around 50 million bags enter the Australian litter stream every year. Unless they are collected, they remain in the environment and accumulate at a staggering rate. If these 50 million plastic bags were made into a single plastic sheet, it would be big enough to cover the Melbourne CBD.
Production of Waste in Australia
Australians are the second highest producers of waste, per person, in the world with each of us sending over 690 kilograms of waste to landfill each year (the United States is the highest waste producer). The amount of waste placed in landfill each year in Australia is enough to cover the state of Victoria.
Plastic Waste and Clean Up Australia Day
Plastic has remained the most common category of rubbish picked up on Clean Up Australia day over the last 20 years. In 2009, it made up 29% of all rubbish found. Of the plastic rubbish found, 17.6% were plastic bags with an average of 40 plastic bags being found at each Clean Up site.
That means there is an average of half a million shopping bags collected every year on Clean Up Australia day.
What Can I recycle?
There are 2 types of plastic bags:
- High Density Polyethylene (HDPE) bags - They are the thin singlet bags used by over 80% of retailers, including supermarkets. These can be recycled at most supermarkets. Generally they are not collected through your local kerbside recycling, however one or two local councils are currently trialling their collection - contact your local council first to see if they collect plastic bags.
- Low Density Polyethylene (LDPE) bags - These are the thicker bags used by less than 20% of retailers, usually for luxury goods. While they can be recycled there are few collection points. Check with your local council to see if they collect LDPE plastics.
How does plastic litter harm the environment?
Many thousands of marine mammals and seabirds die every year around the world as a result of plastic litter. When the animal dies and decays the plastic is free again to repeat the deadly cycle. There are 2 major reasons that plastic bags are particularly problematic in the litter stream:
1. They last from 20 - 1 000 years
2. They escape and float easily in air and water, travelling long distances
Because plastic bags last so long, every year, the number of plastic bags in the litter stream increases. Currently, only 3% per cent of plastic bags used in Australia are recycled.
(1) Worldwide Home Environmentalists Network home.vicnet.net.au/~when/plastic.htm (2) Environment Australia, Plastic Shopping Bags - Analysis of Levies and Environmental Impacts (Nolan ITU, 2002) www.deh.gov.au/industry/waste/plastic-bags/bags-analysis.html