Sustainable shopping bags

Sticking with your reusable polypropylene bags is the most sustainable choice - the one that makes a difference.
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01 .Stick with your reusable green bag


Since the introduction of green bags to Australian supermarkets in 2002 reusable bags have become part of our daily existence. A 2010 CHOICE online reader survey found 62% of respondents use green bags or other reusable bags as their main shopping bag. These days there are plenty of sustainable options available to shoppers looking to minimise their environmental impact. The tricky part is, not all of them are as green as they first appear. CHOICE has looked into the issue to find the best sustainable shopping option for consumers and the environment.

Which bag is best for the environment?

Peter Allan, principal consultant at Hyder Consulting, has authored numerous studies for the government on the impacts of plastic bags, including reports advising the government about which shopping bag system would be kindest to the environment. This research involved a lifecycle assessment of bag options, including energy and water use, materials consumption and litter and marine impacts across the life of a bag. The analysis found that,

  • Overall, a reusable bag is a better option for the environment than bags with between one and three typical uses. “Given the popularity of the green bags, we needed to test whether reusable was better for the environment and this was comprehensively proven – but only so long as you use it repeatedly over a long period,” says Allan. 
  • A green bag has to be used more than 23 times before it becomes a better option than single-use bags.
  • Of the range of reusable bag types tested, the most environmentally friendly option was the 100% recycledcontent PET reusable bag, closely followed by the reusable green bag.
  • Calico bags are not recommended, due to the amount of water used in their production.

An assessment of single-use bags was also undertaken and the recycled HDPE bags came out best, with paper and biodegradable starch bags the least preferable for the environment. “Both biodegradable and paper bags use more energy and materials than thin plastic bags to make,” says Allan. “And there is little advantage in biodegradable and degradable bags, because most bags end up in landfill where there is no benefit to breaking down – they just create more methane and a less stable landfill site.”

Know your bags

Biodegradable: Plastic that meets the Australian Standard for biodegradability and breaks down or composts into carbon dioxide, methane, biomass and water. Generally made of corn starchor other plant material.

Degradable: Petroleum-based plastic that breaks down into small pieces when exposed to oxygen or sunlight.

HDPE (High Density Polyethylene): A lightweight plastic from which the vast majority of single-use plastic bags are made.

LDPE (Low-Density Polyethylene): Thicker plastic from which boutique bags are made.


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Australia lags behind


Many other nations have introduced measures to reduce the use of lightweight plastic bags. 

  • Bangladesh was the first country to ban polyethylene bags in early 2002.
  • Ireland was the first country to use a nation-wide levy to discourage plastic bag use in 2002. Within a week plastic bag usage decreased from an estimated 328 bags per capita to 21 bags per capita.
  • China is the largest country who banned plastic bags. The ban in 2008 was estimated to have saved the country 1.6 million tonnes of oil in the year following its introduction.
  • The most recent measure comes from the EU: In November 2013, the European Commission adopted a proposal that requires its 28 Member States to reduce their use of lightweight plastic carrier bags. Member States can choose whatever measures they find most appropriate to meet this requirement, including charges, national reduction targets or a total ban.

States go it alone

In May 2009, the South Australian government introduced a ban on the use of single-use plastic bags. Retailers are only allowed to offer biodegradable plastic bags, paper bags and heavy-duty reusable bags, either free or for a charge. Produce and meat barrier bags, and purchased bin liners are also exempt from the ban. 

Early research showed that SA residents have taken to reusable bags with gusto, with 90% of those surveyed taking their own bags to the supermarket and only one percent relying entirely on shop-provided bags. 

Other states have followed with a ban on lightweight plastic bags:

  • Northern Territory - 1 September 2011
  • ACT - 1 November 2011
  • Tasmania - 1 November 2013 
  • Victoria - trialled a charge for plastic bags in 2008 but has not introduced a ban.
  • The Western Australia, Queensland and New South Wales governments have not introduced a ban on plastic bags, despite apparent support from shoppers for such a move.

Community and retailer responses

Some communities have taken the initiative and banned lightweight plastic bags in their town. Across Australia, many festivals, events, farmers’ markets and entertainment precincts have gone plastic bag-free after local communities have shown a willingness to embrace alternatives to the single-use plastic bag. 

The story about retailers is mixed: 

  • In 2003, Bunnings introduced a 10c charge per plastic bag, which resulted in a 99% reduction in bag usage over five years. In 2008, it removed plastic bags from its outlets altogether, with reusable bags and cardboard boxes proving popular replacements. 
  • IKEA removed plastic bags in 2008.
  • Australia Post stopped offering plastic bags in 2009.
  • Supermarket chain Aldi has only ever offered reusable heavy duty plastic and green bags available for its customers to purchase since opening in Australia in 2001
  • But Target backed down in October 2013 and reintroduced free plastic bags after phasing out plastic bags in 2009. 
  • And neither of Australia’s two major supermarket chains has yet introduced a ban or levy on bags. Interestingly, all supermarket chains in SA have complied with the ban on HDPE single-use bags without a hitch.
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