Ban the bag in your neighbourhood

Green Lifestyle Magazine

You head to the grocery store armed with your reusable bag, only to be greeted by many still saying yes to plastic. But rest assured it is possible to create a plastic bag-free community.

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Despite widespread awareness about the perils of plastic most people still opt for the single-use, throwaway bag at the checkout. Australians use 3.9 billion plastic bags annually and an estimated 40 million of these end up as litter. Perhaps some are used again as bin liners, but mostly they’re binned outright or stuffed into a drawer to make their way to landfill – or the local waterway – at a later date.

It seems awareness alone is not enough to create the change that’s needed. Yet there is some good news. In 2002, Ireland introduced a plastic bag levy. Plastic bag usage dropped from an estimated 328 bags per person per year to just 21 – overnight. Los Angeles has become one of the latest of a long string of US municipalities that have banned checkout bags outright. And closer to home, the South Australian government has banned lightweight, checkout-style plastic bags (2009), as has the Northern Territory (2011) and the ACT (2011).

In the face of federal inaction, communities have taken the lead. In 2003, Baker Ben Kearney, with assistance from Planet Ark, mobilised local businesses to help Coles Bay in Tasmania become Australia’s first town to go plastic bag free. In the first year alone the town saved 350,000 bags from landfill. Other towns and suburbs have followed, including Torquay and Anglesea in Victoria, Kangaroo Valley, Oyster Bay in Sydney, and Yarraville in Melbourne. This year, Fremantle became Australia’s first council to ban plastic bags outright.

If you’re keen to have your town or suburb join the growing list of community-led initiatives, NGOs Do Something! and Planet Ark are good places to start. Janet Sparrow, Recycling Programs Manager at Planet Ark, suggests communities start at the “Tips for Towns” page of its Plastic Bag Reduction website.

Barwon Heads in Victoria is also keen to share its knowledge. Since late 2011 a group of community members, including Anthony Mangelsdorf from the Barwon Heads Sustainability Group, have been garnering support to turn the plastic tide. “To make a campaign like this work, you’ve got to get the ‘big players’ like your local supermarket on board,” says Anthony. “In fact, the most important thing to do is to build partnerships. We worked with the traders association, local coastal managers, media, sustainability groups, council – and it’s crucial that local schools are the centre of your campaign. Schools have access to an excellent cross-section of the community and children are the next generation of leaders. Plus, the media love photographs of children so you’re likely to get coverage in the local newspaper!”

Eight steps to a bag-free community

- Seek funding. Your local council or chamber of commerce could fund a project manager to help drive
the campaign.

- Educate yourself. Arm yourself with facts about plastic bags, and how to live without them. Provide information freely.
- Create partnerships. Get support from local traders, schools and council.

- Your local supermarket is key. Getting it on board can be the greatest challenge, so start early and create a petition if necessary.

- Set a launch event. A deadline keeps the momentum for everyone involved. Invite local delegates.

- Create a website; use Twitter and Facebook. Professionalism is important. Maintain your online presence.

- Provide free reusable bags – everyone loves a freebie – but make sure the bags you choose are environmentally responsible.

- Read the book Ban the Plastic Bag: A Community Action Plan by Rebecca Hosking, a UK guide to organising and carrying out campaigns.

- Finally, think big. Plastic bag pollution is just one of many environmental problems. Build on the success and momentum of this single-issue campaign to raise awareness for further initiatives.