But it also highlights a broader issue: Australia’s persistent appetite for single-use plastic, which appears to have only grown in recent years despite a wave of new laws clamping down on its use.
In fact, the demand now appears to be so great that established recycling initiatives can no longer keep up.
The Australian government has called on supermarket giants Coles and Woolworths to come up with an alternative plan to recycle soft plastic.
But environmental scientist and conservationist Dr. Paul Harvey says a much bigger shift is needed, with recycling becoming the “last line of thought” in treating plastic waste.
A resource-intensive process, soft plastic recycling is also complicated by impurities introduced along the way – such as food scraps left inside plastic bags.
“The primary thought process should be: How can I avoid this in the first place?” Harvey told 9news.com.au.
It comes after New South Wales became the latest Australian jurisdiction to ban single-use shopping bags on June 1, four years after supermarket giants Coles and Woolworths gradually phased out their use across the country.
However, total plastic consumption in Australia remains shockingly high.
This is several kilograms ahead of the next offender – the United States – and almost four times the global average.
Recent initiatives by governments and retailers such as banning single-use bags have yet to see any tangible impact on these numbers.
According to the National Plastics Scheme released just last year by the Australian government, Australians get 70 billion items of “removable” soft plastic such as plastic bags and food wrappers annually.
This equates to approximately 2,700 soft plastic pieces per person.
Despite the growing popularity of recycling schemes such as those operated by REDcycle, in 2020, only 12 per cent of Australia’s total plastic waste was recycled.
The bulk is sent to landfill, where it can take up to 1,000 years to decompose, leaching toxic substances into the soil and water.
An additional 130,000 tons enter our waterways each year – the equivalent of the weight of about 130 cargo ships.
The effects on marine life are devastating.
So just where did we go wrong?
The first wave of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 put many reuse and recycling initiatives on hold amid lockdowns and growing concerns about surface pollution.
Cafes stopped accepting reusable coffee cups, Woolworths ended a “boxes to bench” service that avoided the need for shopping bags on home deliveries and many fresh, bulk produce disappeared from supermarket shelves, replaced by plastic-wrapped alternatives.
While new research shows that COVID-19 infection by surface contact is still extremely rare, it is a trend that has been slow to shift.
So has the government’s ban on single-use plastic bags and other single-use plastics actually achieved their desired goal?
Harvey says the benefits of banning plastic bags remain “in question,” as long as heavyweight plastic alternatives remain permitted.
However, these bags are very similar to their lightweight counterparts and are distributed free of charge at many retailers and delis.
“It’s kind of a bit of a green wash — the idea of changing from lightweight to heavyweight plastic bags,” Harvey said.
He points out that heavy bags are actually much worse for the environment.
“It’s heavier, it’s thicker, so there’s more material,” he said.
“They are still made from materials derived from fossil fuels to make polymer.
“The thicker the product, the longer it will stay.”
Woolworths and Coles, once among the largest producers of single-use plastic bags, have taken 3 billion and 1.6 billion plastic bags out of circulation annually since they were introduced in 2018.
But these numbers do not take into account the new plastic waste introduced in the form of heavyweight plastic bags for sale for 15 cents.
Woolworths says it puts 9,000 tons of these bags into circulation annually — offsetting a significant proportion of the 15,000 to 18,000 tons of single-use plastic bags it weighs.
“Our reusable plastic bags have been introduced to help customers adapt to removing single-use plastic bags from our stores,” a Woolworths spokesperson said.
Coles has so far declined to announce any similar plans, instead focusing on the pilot removal of single-use bags of fresh produce currently underway in ACT stores, which it says will save 11 tons of plastic going to landfill each year.
However, despite the moves by major retailers, state governments are still reluctant to support them with stricter legislative action.
But Australia’s two largest states, New South Wales and Victoria, currently have no plans to do the same.
The NSW Environmental Protection Agency told 9news.com.au that while it was “gratifying” that Woolworths chose to phase out heavyweight bags, it would only review any such move in 2024 “to determine whether appropriate at the time.”
An EPA spokesperson said: “The EPA will monitor the success of this measure before determining whether a mandatory phase-out is needed in the future.”
Harvey believes that this reticence is due to concerns about declining retail sales, as well as resistance from oil and gas companies that supply the raw materials used in plastics.
However, Harvey remains optimistic about new plastics legislation targeting items such as microbeads and polystyrene containers.
“With the majority of single-use plastics now banned, there are currently no other single-use plastics on the market that can replace them,” he points out.
“So fast food outlets will have to switch to cardboard or bamboo products.”
The Australian marsupial is listed as endangered
With the future of soft plastic recycling in Australia now uncertain, the true extent of our consumption of single-use plastic will be clearer than ever.