Seeing a plastic bag drifting through the wind, or on the side of the street, is not an uncommon sight anymore. In Australia alone, 6.9 billion new plastic bags are consumed annually, with only 3 per cent of these bags being recycled and up to 80 million becoming litter.
Currently, organisations are being pressured by various groups and industries to integrate and implement more socially responsible standards into their internal and external policies and practices.
Australia’s two supermarket giants, Woolworths and Coles, have announced that their stores will stop offering their single-use plastic bags within 12 months as Woolworths alone is producing 3.2 billion plastic bags. Instead, customers will be able to buy a more durable plastic bag at 15 cents to $2 each, or simply bring their own.
Coles state they are committed to reducing their impact on the environment and are constantly investing in important environmental projects, focussing on waste reduction and recycling. According to the company, Coles offers a range of bag options in-store for their customers, although when given the option, the majority of people will still use the plastic bags.
Standard plastic bags can take 100 years to decompose in landfill so the aim of banning plastic bags is primarily for environmental and community considerations, but are people really willing to sacrifice convenience for the environment or is it just corporate greed?
Moves by major supermarkets to stop providing free plastic bags could earn these businesses more than $1 million a year, but may only have a small impact on the environment. Plastic bags costing the company $171,100,000 per year so the opportunity to phase out this cost certainly makes good business sense. Selling these new reusable plastic bags at 15c each effectively creates another revenue stream potentially adding up to $71 million in gross profit.
Removing free bags will give shoppers an incentive to use their reusable bags. Although, moving to a reusable option also doesn’t stop people discarding these new bags either. Another US study found many people still threw away reusable bags.
Shopping is a habitual and low involvement activity for most of us and switching from being given shopping bags, to taking our own or paying for some, may have required some initial inconvenience for the first few shopping trips, people would quickly adjust to this new requirement.
Target’s spokesperson Jim Cooper said, after trialling the ban the bag movement in 2009, that customers had, “Clearly told us that they do not believe they should be forced to buy a bag.” Although this was a minority of people that changed the outcome of the stores environmental action as the majority were happy to pay extra for biodegradable bags or bring their own. Another study also concluded that individuals who support the banning of plastic bags intend and perform the behaviour to reduce plastic bag use.
It was established that people who are aware of the impact of plastic bags on the environment and who have a sense of social pressure, intend to reduce their plastic bag use. A study conducted in Taiwan discovered that charging people for plastic bags is not, on its own, an effective method for reducing plastic bag use. Economic measures can sometimes lead to confusion about their intended purpose, and this, in turn, can become a potential obstacle that prevents an effective reduction of plastic bag use.
To be ethical, the supermarkets could choose to funnel some of the profits derived from the 15c reusable bag into community programs or environmental groups. Australian governments will also need fund ongoing education campaigns to draw attention to bans, alternatives and outcomes. This will encourage people to reuse their bags and educate shoppers of the positive effects of bringing their own bags.
So companies can make the switch in a way that will benefit the environment and help educate shoppers. So if the vast majority are happy to pay for bags or bring their own, will you be making the switch?