Circular not Linear, the single use plastic bag fiasco explained.

There is a lot of hype in Australia at the moment in reaction to the recent changes to the introduction of a $0.15c charge for a reusable plastic bag and withdrawing single use plastic bags, in the hope to move people to reusable bag use.

The change has been met with a lot of scepticism and public outrage, even reports of check out assistants being attacked because customers are outraged at having to pay for a bag.

What should have been a win for the ‘war on waste’, has turned into a different sort of battle. A battle to win over the consumer.

So why the public outcry?

One sided media

The media coverage has been disappointing, to say the least.

They have given more air time to people opposing the bag reduction (not ban for NSW), than supporters, leading people to think that everyone is outraged, when in actual fact 84% of people support it, the 14% that don’t are just shouting louder.

Even The Project TV gave Steve Price, a prime time TV slot to bag the ban, (I couldn’t help myself with this pun).  Apparently, he wants the ‘greenies to leave him alone’, so he can reuse his single use bags to pick up dog poop.

There has been very little coverage of where the plastic bag charge has worked successfully, in countries such as the UK, where they charge 5pence for bags, this saw a 85% reduction in usage and consumers adjusted to bringing their own reusables.

Unanswered questions?

Secondly, it leaves open questions on plastic packaging as a whole that have gone unanswered. Why are there still plastic bags available for fruit and vegetable shopping? Why is there still so much fresh produce over packaged?  And what will be done about it? This makes people question the authenticity of the motives behind the phasing out of the single use plastic bags, however the major supermarkets have made voluntary commitments to cutting packaging on their own branded goods.

And finally, probably the most important part of the overall communication failure, is the lack of communication of the benefits, ‘what’s in it for me’? All the reasoning has been ‘its better for the environment’, but unfortunately, we know that large numbers of people do not respond to this messaging and want to know the personal benefit to them. This was evidenced by the Sustainable Lifestyles Frontiers Group, who found that sustainability marketing messages are failing.  According to their research, there is still too much of an appeal to the greater good, and not enough focus on individual benefits like functionality, personal and social benefits, before getting to the collective messaging.

Another example of this is the ABC video on plastic bag alternatives. ‘So what bag is a better alternative’ was the head line, better for who? It was focused on the manufacture of the bag, which one had less impact from an environmental point of view, in terms of energy, water and litter potential. Whilst this US vs the ENVIRONMENT line is unhelpfully reinforced, as we need to realise we are one and the same, there is a need to bring the consumer along positively, not drag them kicking and screaming.

Let’s face it, there is still a values action gap that we don’t fully understand. While many people say they care where the plastic bag ends up, and for the whales and the turtles, their professed values do not always translate into tangible action.


Little faith in the alternatives

And finally, there are lots of questions, and rightly so, around the reusable bag alternatives. What type should you choose? Cotton? Thicker plastic? Hemp? It would have been refreshing to have a well-researched, non-biased information campaign around the alternatives, from an independent source, such as the government for example? who have remained extremely quiet on the issue so far.

Deakin University Professor, Dr Thornton in this SBS article asks what are the flow on effects of the alternatives? This is a really good point as we are in real danger of getting rid of one problem and creating another.


 ‘Solving’ one problem to create another

The plastic bag charge whilst good in the short term is not a long-term solution, as its replacing one linear problem with another linear one. The real question is How do we move from Linear to Circular?  Not swap out one waste stream for another. A hopeful Nine article said the recent moves will help Australia’s flagging circular economy.

Perhaps the biggest win for single use bag reduction, (not ban for NSW), is the increased focus on the fact that waste is a problem. So, what am I going to put my rubbish in? and how do I line my bin? If this gets people thinking about what they actually put in the bin, then maybe it’s been a success for that reason alone?

For me the most important and bigger question is still, how do we move from a linear waste model to a circular one?   


Picture courtesy of National Geographic.