It’s a funny one, the Law of Unintended Consequences. It’s one of those laws that is beyond any possibility of repeal, but it’s one that most governments, if they ever stop their furious production of arse gravy for long enough to think about things for a few minutes, must wish they could do away with quietly because they keep falling foul of it. These days the poor, stupid things seem to be particularly prone to unintended consequences when trying to give themselves a veneer of greenishness, and so it is with the latest example from this part of the world.
A couple of years ago, in a move reminiscent of the current drive for Australia to lead the world by introducing mandatory plain tobacco packaging to make it easier for counterfeiters and chop-chop dealers to compete with the legal tobacco industry, South Australia led the nation in banning plastic carrier bags. This would, it was claimed, reduce waste sent to landfill – though quite why that’s a problem in a state of more than a million square kilometres and only 1.6 million people, three-quarters of whom live in Adelaide, I’m not quite sure. Nobody likes to see plastic bags littering the place, but SA is not short of room to bury shit is what I’m saying here. Now I know that you can probably emit some carbon dioxide down any street of any city in the developed world and be sure of warming at least half a dozen green zealots by a fraction of a degree, all of whom will tell you that plastic bags in landfill won’t decompose for about eleventy squillion years, and hyperbole aside they’re probably right. So far better to ban the nasty things and force everyone to buy those reusable ones, right?
Wrong, as any member of any household that used to reuse their carrier bags could have told them. We do use the reusable bags but we tend to make sure we get a few carriers on shopping trips for use in small pedal bins and for clearing up after pets, and since many SA pet stores will surely sell bags for that it’s not like the bags are completely banned in SA. It’s just that the supermarkets aren’t allowed to give them out, or even sell them, for you to take your groceries home in. And since South Australians also used them for more than that the ban has had an effect that you probably needed to be in government to have been unable to foresee.
BIN liner sales in SA have doubled since free plastic shopping bags were banned more than two years ago.
And most bin bags are made of thicker plastic than traditional bags, which means they take longer to break down in the environment.
But… but… surely there must be some mistake because, as the article mentions, none other than the head of Zero Waste SA (a state government quango by the looks of it) said at the time that there wouldn’t be a significant increase in bin bag sales. Exactly what he thought South Australians would be lining their bins with I don’t know, but clearly it wasn’t expected to be bin liners. So this must be coming as a bit of a shock.
Woolworths (one of Australia’s big two supermarket chains – AE) says SA sales of plastic kitchen-tidy bags of a similar size, capacity and shape to single-use plastic shopping bags, are now double the national average.
At Coles (the other big supermarket chain – AE), sales of kitchen tidy bags increased 40 per cent in the year following the ban in May 2009.
Bin bag manufacturer Glad reported a 52.5 per cent jump in kitchen-tidy bag sales in the first year of the ban, compared with a 5.5 per cent increase nationally.
In SA, 48 million Glad bin bags were bought in 2008, rising to more than 73 million in 2009 and 84 million last year.
The figures have raised concerns about whether the plastic bag ban has been effective in reducing waste sent to landfill.
And it gets worse, since both paper and reusable bags are heavier, meaning emissions if you believe in warble gloaming, and costs if you don’t, are higher per bag you transport since you’ll get far fewer of them on the lorry. This is going to be at least partly cancelled out if a lot if people do reuse them but it turns out that there’s more bad news on that score – they have to be reused a hell of a lot before they make up for the extra energy used in their production.*
HDPE bags are, for each use, almost 200 times less damaging to the climate than cotton hold-alls favoured by environmentalists, and have less than one third of the Co2 emissions than paper bags which are given out by retailers such as Primark.
The findings suggest that, in order to balance out the tiny impact of each lightweight plastic bag, consumers would have to use the same cotton bag every working day for a year, or use paper bags at least thrice rather than sticking them in the bin or recycling.
Most paper bags are used only once and one study assumed cotton bags were used only 51 times before being discarded, making them – according to this new report – worse than single-use plastic bags.
And ironically this means that I, as a warble gloaming sceptic, can use the allegedly eco-friendly bags with a clear conscience, while the eco-sustainability types should be marching on the South Australian parliament house to demand the evil polythene ones back. Clearly then, the policy makes no sense at all, and it’s really a bit of luck that the South Australians have found out about these unintended, though not unforeseeable, consequences in time for other states and territories to avoid the same trap.
The Northern Territory and ACT are now introducing their own bans.
* Tip of the Akubra to Cracked.com.